About an Unknown Artist of the School of the Laguna Santero's

Our Lady of Guadalupe


REPRODUCTION: What can I learn about how this reproduction is different from the original artwork?

The digitized image was made from a slide of the original painting which is not very large. It is 26 1/2 inches by 15 3/8 inches. There is another painting of exactly the same shape and size depicting San José. The two paintings might have been displayed as a pair.

CONDITION: What can I determine about the condition of the artwork?

The painting is in almost perfect condition. There are just a few losses of paint on the edges.

SUBJECT MATTER: What can I determine about what the artwork depicts, if anything?

The standing female figure (the Virgin Mary) is turned slightly to the left. Her head is bowed and hands are in a position of prayer. The figure stands in front of a scalloped oval shape (mandorla) formed by light rays.

The Virgin wears a crown and a dark blue, star spangled cloak. The ties of a black belt are visible below her hands. The Virgin stands on a crescent moon. A tiny winged figure supports the figure from below.

There are flowers in the background and in the border.

TOOLS, MATERIALS, AND PROCESSES: What can I learn about how the artwork was made?

A wooden panel, which was sealed with gesso (plaster of Paris or gypsum) and then painted and gilded. Gold leaf was applied to the crown, to the trim of the mantle, to the rays of the sun, to the diamonds in the painted framing, to the band separating the frame from the field around the Virgin, and to details in the angel's wings. The painting was made with locally produced paints similar to those used by Pueblo Indians.

Sensory Lesson Index SENSORY ELEMENTS: What visual elements do I see?

The dominant colors are blue, red and a yellowish tan. Shapes are clearly defined, often with outlines. There is little illusion of depth in the painting.

FORMAL ORGANIZATION: How do the elements in the artwork work together?

The symmetry of the image is reinforced by the shaped panel with its semi-circular top. There is an overall decorative quality to the painting. All large areas are filled or covered with decoration. The scalloped edge of the oval (mandorla) is repeated in a scalloped edge inside the semi-circular top of the painting. Repetition can also be found in the border pattern, the floral background pattern, in the pointed shapes of the sun's rays and the Virgin's crown, in the stars on her cloak, and in the curved red lines of her gown.


The name and specific identity of the painter are unknown. Scholars believe that an anonymous artist working in what is now New Mexico at the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth century was responsible for a large body of similar work. They have named this unknown artist the Laguna Santero, after a large altar screen in the church at Laguna Pueblo, which they believe he painted. It was common practice in late eighteenth century New Mexico for apprentices to be taught to copy the style of a master painter for whom they worked. The Our Lady of Guadalupe in this project has been attributed to a painter who was trained by the Laguna Santero or who copied his work. Therefore the painter is said to be of the School of the Laguna Santero.


NATURAL CONTEXT: What can I learn about the natural environment where the artwork was made?

New Mexico is a high desert region. A trip from this northern province of Colonial New Spain to the capitol in Mexico City was a very long, and arduous journey. The traditional indigenous Pueblo Indians of this region live in villages (pueblos) and are dry corn farmers.

FUNCTIONAL CONTEXT: What can I learn about how the artwork was used?

When the Spanish retook New Mexico after the Pueblo Revolt in 1680, friars began to reestablish missions to continue to convert the Indians. Small images used for teaching religious doctrine could be transported from church to church. The Our Lady of Guadalupe in this project may have been displayed in a church or in a home where it would have been used for private devotion.

Because the Virgin of Gaudalupe was dark-haired and dark-skinned (as opposed to the European imagery of the white, blue-eyed Christ or God figures) her image was an effective tool in conversion on indigenous people. If they had no one they could trust, they could go to her because she was one of them.

CULTURAL CONTEXT: What can I determine about what people thought, believed, or did in the culture in which the artwork was made?

The indigenous people of what is now New Mexico lived in villages for centuries before Coronado's expedition into New Mexico in 1540. Some villages have been continuously inhabited by Pueblo people since the twelfth century.

The territory which is now New Mexico was a northern territory of New Spain from 1598 till 1821. From 1821 till 1946, the period between the Mexican Revolution and the war between the United States and Mexico, it was a part of Mexico. Then as a result of that war, it became a U. S. territory (1846 -1912). In 1912 New Mexico entered the Union as the forty-seventh state.

During the early colonial period Franciscan missionaries were sent to convert the Indians and build missions. The friars depended on supply caravans bringing goods from Mexico every three years. After the Pueblo Revolt, when the friars returned to New Mexico after having been expelled, they were more tolerant of the traditions of the indigenous people.

"During the eighteenth century, churches were rebuilt and new towns founded, and an economy based on sheepraising and agriculture evolved. As in the previous century, imported goods from as far away as China and Europe, as well as from Mexico, made their way up the Camino Real, but never in enough quantity to satisfy the people of New Mexico. Donna Pierce. (1996) "From New Spain to New Mexico: Art and Culture on the Northern Frontier in Converging Cultures: Art & Identity in Spanish America, edited by Diana Fane, New York: Harry N. Abrams, p. 63.

"Thousands of miles from their home in Spain or Mexico, the colonists clung to things and ways familiar to them. Through families and across generations, traditions and art forms were passed on orally, by stories, songs and dichos (sayings) and by example, through method, design, and construction. Over the years, the traditions were affected by both exchange and intermarriage with Native Americans, by the long distances from Spanish economic and artistic centers such as Mexico City, and by individual needs for embellishment and innovation. What developed was, and continues to be, a culture rooted in Spain but distinctly and uniquely Hispanic New Mexican." Robin Farwell Gavin. ( 1994). Traditional Arts of Spanish New Mexico, Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, p. 22.

ARTWORLD CONTEXT: What can I learn about the art ideas, beliefs, and activities that were important in the culture in which the artwork was made?

The first religious art in what is now New Mexico was brought from central Mexico. Some itinerant Mexican artists traveled and worked in New Mexico. Later New Mexican artists made their own artworks following Mexican models.

"By the mid-eighteenth century, local artists had begun to carve and paint wooden altar screens for use in New Mexican churches, and locally crafted religious images began to appear alongside imported pieces in both churches and homes. In New Mexico, images of saints were known as bultos (sculptures) and retablos (paintings on wood panels). . . . . At least a dozen santeros (artists or saint makers) active in New Mexico had a developed style recognizably New Mexican in character." Donna Pierce. (1996) "From New Spain to New Mexico: Art and Culture on the Northern Frontier in Converging Cultures: Art & Identity in Spanish America, edited by Diana Fane, New York: Harry N. Abrams, p. 63.

The santero had considerable status within the community. He had a prominent position in the church and people came to him and his workshop for sacred pictures. Henry Glassie describes the santero's workshop as "a family operation. . . . It is directed by explicit instruction, but is more important, it is constrained by a reduction in the range of models available for imitation. The result is a more restricted style, which, sturdily compressed and reinforced by blood, can survive on its own. . . . " The Spirit of Folk Art: The Girard Collection at the Museum of International Folk Art, (1989), Santa Fe: Museum of International Folk Art, p. 97.


MAKER'S INTENTION: What can I learn about why the maker wanted the artwork to look the way it does?

We shall never definitively know the specific intentions of the painter of the School of the Laguna Santero who painted the Virgin of Guadalupe in this project. However, we might surmise that he wanted to produce a painting worthy of his mentor, the Laguna Santero, and that he wanted to paint an image which would inspire the devotion of its viewers.

Viewer Lesson Index

ARTWORLD VIEWER UNDERSTANDING: What can I determine about how the viewer, patron, or user understood the artwork?

Late eighteenth and early nineteenth century viewers in the northern provinces of Colonial New Spain (now New Mexico in the United States) would have recognized the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe with all its traditional symbols:

The standing female figure turned slightly to the left with head bowed and praying hands represents the Virgin Mary as seen by Juan Diego, an Indian peasant in December 12, 1531, ten years after the conquest of Mexico.

The scalloped oval shape (mandorla) formed by light rays, which the Virgin's figure blocks, represents the rays of the sun. The Virgin blocking the Sun may also have been understood as the new Catholic religion replacing the sun-dominated religions in Mexico that existed prior to the conquest.

The crown on her head represents the Virgin as the queen of heaven.

The dark blue, star spangled cloak represents the heavens.

The black belt visible below the Virgin's hands represents maternity. Indian women traditionally wore such belts.

The Virgin stands on a crescent moon which may be associated with the Aztec Mother/ Moon goddess, Tonantzín.

The tiny winged figure supporting the Virgin represents an angel (or minor deity) ushering in the new religion (Catholicism) in a new age (Spanish dominion) for a new people (Mexicans). Traditionally the angels wings are red, white, and green, which became the colors of the Mexican flag.

Flowers, usually roses, represent the flowers from the Virgin which fell from Juan Diego's mantle on his last visit to the bishop, whom the Virgin had directed to build a church in her honor.

CULTURAL IMPACT: What can I learn about how the artwork was understood within culture in which it was made?

The Catholic religion was a pillar of the colonial society in what is now New Mexico. Religious images, such as Our Lady of Guadalupe helped reinforce religious devotion and the power of the Catholic Church both in churches or in private homes. Even poor people could acquire sacred images for home use through barter. Because the Virgin of Guadalupe is the patron saint of Mexico, an image such as this also reinforced Mexican cultural identity in distant provinces.


STYLE: How does the artwork look like other artworks?

"Many aspects of the Laguna Santero's art exhibit familiarity with the late Mexican baroque style and reveal the influence of the newer rococo aesthetic. . . .His style indicates familiarity with, if not formal training in, Mexican provincial arts. . . .Stylistically, the main characteristics of work by the master are elaborate floral decoration; white highlighting; triangular-shaped heads, shaded eyelids, and large hands with abnormally distended thumbs; and drapery delineated in an abstract and decorative manner." Donna Pierce, (1996), "Saints in New Mexico", in Spanish New Mexico, Volume I, edited by Donna Pierce and Marta Weigle, Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, pp. 34-5.

The Virgin of Guadalupe in this project has the characteristic floral decoration as well as the abstract and decorative drapery delineation of the Laguna Santero's style.

INFLUENCE: What can I learn about how earlier artworks influenced this artwork or about whether this artwork influenced later artworks?

"Styles introduced to Mexico from Europe through church commissions were reinterpreted and employed in novel ways in the hands of Mexican craftsmen, and again by New Mexican artists. The overwrought decorative detail of the seventeenth-century Baroque in Mexico established the character of this distinctly Mexican style, but only in the eighteenth century did it reach its zenith in the wildly untamed and self-confident façades and altar screens of the Estípite Baroque churches. These same decorative details--cherubs, shells, flowers, ovals, diamonds, S-curves--were then pared down to a form of shorthand and executed in homemade paints on hand-adzed pine panels in the art of the northern frontier." Donna Pierce. (1996) "From New Spain to New Mexico: Art and Culture on the Northern Frontier in Converging Cultures: Art & Identity in Spanish America, edited by Diana Fane, New York: Harry N. Abrams, p. 67.

The long tradition of painted religious images came to New Mexico with the first settlers in 1598. It has evolved through the years, and continues to this day.

THEMES: What general ideas connect this artwork to other artworks?

Imagery used in support of religion transcends time and place. More art has been produced around this theme than any other. Religious art has reinforced Christian spiritual beliefs, as well as the beliefs of many other religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam.

Cultural identity is also a theme that unifies Our Lady of Guadalupe in this project with other images such as the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, the thunderbird in Hopi culture, or the heraldic flags of Europe.