Hispanic religious art relieves life's sorrows

Aurora exhibit features Hispanic religious art used to relieve life's sorrows
By Colleen O'Connor, The Denver Post, 07/09/2009

The Aurora History Museum is using multicultural art to expand its local audience with the latest lure, "Santos," an exhibition of traditional Hispanic religious art.

"There's a wide audience of people who live in Aurora. So many different cultures. We thought this would be a great way to tie (santos) in to people's lives and also educate people who aren't familiar with it."

One of the featured artists is Littleton santero Jose Raul Esquibel.

"The very traditional use of santos is to connect people and take the pain out of the world," said Esquibel, a former federal law enforcement officer who worked in the White House under President Jimmy Carter.

"The whole point of folk art is to tame the world and make it less alien. It's universal."

Santos are hand-carved images of saints, angels or other religious figures. They include statues, or bultos, and painted panels, called retablos. This style of indigenous art is unique to Colorado and New Mexico, with roots in Spanish colonial art, and it has grown in popularity in recent years.

Aurora's show chronicles the history of santos, from their origins in 18th century New Mexico, to contemporary Colorado santeros, or saintmakers.

"We wanted to look at it over time, where the art began and how it evolved," said MaryJane Valade, curator of exhibitions at the museum. "It's a different perspective, and it ties in with who the people of Aurora are. There's a large Hispanic community here."

Esquibel has made santos for many local churches, including the altar for Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Aurora.

"This is not a nostalgic art," he said. "It's relevant to today."

To mark a murder that took place in northwest Denver, he once carved a santo called "Our Lady of Sorrows With a Gun," now owned by the Kirkland Museum in Denver. Traditionally, a sorrowful Mother Mary is depicted with a sword, but he updated the image by substituting a 9mm Smith & Wesson.

"It brought to mind the
Cruz con Animas is among the santos in the exhibit of traditional Hispanic religious art, which runs through Aug. 2. (Reza A. Marvashti, The Denver Post)
whole business of women who outlive their children or see their children murdered," Esquibel said.

In the past 10 years, there have been at least 15 santos exhibitions in Colorado museums and art galleries. Academics are now studying the topic, with most of the top 14 books on santos art published since 1992.

Santos often are used as gifts to soften the hard blows of reality, given to mothers of soldiers or those dealing with serious illness.

Esquibel once made a santo of St. Raphael the healer for a massage worker, but recently the man said he no longer had it. After he suffered through a bad divorce, where his wife won custody of the children, he discovered that she was dying of cancer.

"The boys were coming to me under the worst circumstances," he said to Esquibel.

He gave the santo to his wife, told her to keep it, and to not worry about the boys. "So he was present with her in a symbolic, sacramental way," said Esquibel, "not in a pain-giving way."

Colleen O'Connor: 303-954-1083 or coconnor@denverpost.com

"Santos" exhibit

The "Santos" show runs through Aug. 2 at the Aurora History Museum, 15051 E. Alameda Parkway. Admission is free.

On Sunday at 2 p.m., santero Jose Raul Esquibel will give a talk on the history of santos and lead a tour of the exhibit. The cost is $4, or $3 for Aurora residents. Reservations are recommended.

On July 25, from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., he will lead tours of the santos collections at the Denver Art Museum and Regis University. The cost is $22, or $17 for Aurora residents. Reservations are required.

For more information, go to auroramuseum.org or call 303-739-6666.

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