Saint Barbara, New Mexico, c. 1782, Paint on wood, MoSCA, gift of Gerald and Kathleen Peters, 2000.49
Religious art had been imported to New Mexico from central Mexico from early on in the colonial period. But due to distance and expense, religious art was soon produced locally. Although artists are mentioned in New Mexican documents as early as the beginning of the 1600s, no extant works of art can be associated with them. The identity, much less the biography, of most New Mexican artists, or santeros as they were known locally, is unknown. Captain Bernardo Miera y Pacheco (1714-85) is the earliest New Mexican artist identified by name whose surviving works of art can be connected to him. Born near Burgos, Spain in 1714, he apparently moved to
New Mexico in 1751. He is listed in documents of the period from New Mexico as a sculptor and painter as well as a rancher-farmer, soldier, mathematician and cartographer.
In New Mexico, Miera y Pacheco adopted at least one material from the Pueblo Indians. Commissioned to make art for various Pueblo mission churches, including Zuni, Miera y Pacheco would have lived in the pueblo temporarily during construction and would have probably hired and trained assistants from the pueblo population. He learned from the Indians of Zuni of a local mineral (azurite) that could be made into a blue paint. Miera y Pacheco was so taken with the qualities of this paint that he advocated its exportation to Mexico for profit by the government. Now known as Zuni blue, it is clear from documents that Miera y Pacheco used the Pueblo-style blue paint himself in conjunction with imported oil paints and it has recently been identified through chemical testing on at least one of his pieces. Indeed, later santeros in New Mexico often used imported pigments such as cinnabar and indigo alongside paints made from local vegetal and mineral materials similar to those used by the Pueblo Indians. Although Zuni blue paint has not been identified on this lovely retablo of Saint Barbara attributed to Miera y Pacheco, it may well have been used since it was painted around 1780, well after the Zuni screen had been completed before 1776.
According to Christian legend, Saint Barbara is a virgin-martyr of the 4th century whose wealthy pagan father imprisoned her in a tower (seen behind her) when he discovered that she had converted to Christianity. He later had her martyred and when she died, he was struck dead by lightning. As a result, she is prayed to against lightning strikes, so common in New Mexico, and explosions. By extension, she is the patron saint of miners and gunners. She is often depicted holding a martyr’s palm leaf and a monstrance with the wafer, symbolizing her dedication to Christian communion.
Looking beyond the Christian symbolism of Miera y Pacheco’s depiction of Saint Barbara, we can see a well-dressed beautiful young woman with significant jewelry. One might think that the retablo is based on paintings or prints from Europe or Latin American, which is probably true. However, the clothing and jewelry shown was not foreign to New Mexicans in the 1700s.
The English Dominican friar Thomas Gage lived in Mexico and Guatemala from 1625-37 and said: “Both men and women are excessive in their apparel wearing more silks than stuffs and cloth. Precious stones and pearls further much their vain ostentation.” Portraits of the day and quotes by foreign travelers indicate that people of all classes wore jewelry in colonial Latin America. This seems to have been true to a certain extent in New Mexico as well.
For example, Saint Barbara is dressed in a green (possibly velvet) bodice and gold-brown skirt with a bright red cape thrown over her shoulders. Nicolasa Lujan of Santa Fe owned a “jacket of green Persian cloth” and “a skirt of gold cloth” in 1762. In 1770, Monica Tomasa Martín of Taos owned a “crimson red velvet cape” and in 1748 the blacksmith Antonio Durán de Armijo of Taos still had his late wife’s “red velvet cape with silver trim,” the most expensive item in his estate.
Saint Barbara also wears a jeweled hair ornament. Hair combs and ornaments are described in documents in New Mexico. Among the silver utensils in the 1721 dowry of Luisa Gómez del Castillo (Lujan) of Santa Cruz, New Mexico is an intriguing reference to a silver “tembladera.” This word literally means “trembler,” but is sometimes used to describe a type of tankard. However, it is also the name for a type of hair ornament that was exceptionally popular in this era in Spain and Latin America made of silk flowers and jewels inserted into the hair or wig by springy wires so that they trembled or fluttered with the wearer’s movements.
We also see that Saint Barbara wears a choker necklace of large pearls. Luisa’s dowry lists a choker necklace of pearls mixed with corals with a reliquary locket in the middle. Pearls and coral were abundant in Mexico and South America. Both were harvested at numerous locations along both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Pearls were exported to Spain in such tremendous quantities that when Peruvian author Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (1539–1616) visited Seville in the late 1500s he commented that pearls from the Americas “were sold in a heap . . . as if they were some kind of seed.”
Thomas Gage, mentioned earlier, when speaking of women of African descent in Mexico said: “She will be in fashion with her necklace chain and bracelets of pearls, and her earrings of some considerable jewels.” Apparently, this was true of Indian and mixed-race women as well. According to Father Juan Viera reporting from Mexico in 1777: “Indian women . . . wear six or eight strings of pearls or coral around their necks, and reliquaries (such as this one), and rings of gold or silver.” Apparently, this was true in New Mexico as well where in 1753 Juana Galbana, a native of Zia Indian Pueblo, owned a pair of matching coral bracelets and two silver reliquary lockets.
Although Saint Barbara does not wear earrings in Miera y Pacheco’s retablo, many women in New Mexico did, with chandelier or multi-pendant earrings particularly popular, such as the gold and pearl ones owned by Lugarda Quintana of Santa Cruz in 1749. Often these earrings were so large and heavy that the French Countess D’Aulnoy wondered during her visit to Spain in 1680 how they did not tear the earlobes! One of Luisa’s sets was made of gold with both large and small pendant pearls; another pair was made of silver with a mixture of pearls and corals; and yet another pair was made of coral and rock crystal beads.
But the pièce de resistance in the Saint Barbara retablo is the large breast brooch or bodice ornament in the shape of a cross of gilded silver embedded with gemstones. Similar ones were owned in New Mexico by Gertrudes Armijo of Taos in 1748 (gold and coral) and Luisa Gómez in 1721 (gold and gemstones). Such large brooches were attached to the upper center of the bodice (usually sewn or tied on with thin ribbons) and were quite spectacular, some with faux stones of paste or glass, others with diamonds from Brazil and emeralds from Colombia, and can be seen in portraits from Mexico. Although no portraits survive from colonial New Mexico, the painting of Saint Barbara by Santa Fe artist Bernardo Miera y Pacheco includes a cross-shaped gold breast brooch with gemstones, just like the one described in Luisa’s dowry.
-By Donna Pierce, former MoSCA Curator Captain Bernardo Miera y Pacheco