Art

Seeing the Penitente Brotherhood Through Artists’ Eyes

The New Mexico Museum of Art’s Picturing Passion: Artists Interpret the Penitente Brotherhood confronts representation, truth, and otherness in depictions of the storied religious organization.

William Penhallow Henderson, “Holy Week in New Mexico/Penitent Procession” (1919), oil on panel (courtesy New Mexico Museum of Art)

SANTA FE, New Mexico — Originating in northern New Mexico’s Santa Cruz Valley, the Penitente Brotherhood is a Catholic lay organization that has been heavily sensationalized by outsiders since its inception. In the wake of the Franciscan order’s withdrawal from the region in 1790, community members founded the Brotherhood to fill the gap they left. Though today members sometimes allow visitors to attend public events such as community processions, they are known most famously for their practices during Holy Week, which include reenacting Christ’s procession and hymn-singing. For outsiders, rumors of self-flagellation and mock crucifixions add a dramatized mystique to the organization’s contested reputation.

The New Mexico Museum of Art’s Picturing Passion: Artists Interpret the Penitente Brotherhood examines the ways in which outsider representations of social and religious practices has come to define those practices and this community. By looking at artist interpretations of the Penitente Brotherhood, formally known as El Hermanos de la Fraternidad Piadosa de Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno (Brothers of the Pious Fraternity of Our Father Jesus of Nazareth), curator Christian Waguespack explores how Penitentes became emblematic of New Mexico for many Anglo artists, while also addressing the rumors, perpetuated by these artists, about the organization.

Waguespack is adamant that Picturing Passion is not about the Penitentes. And, unlike many cases of nuanced curatorial intent, this actually comes across to visitors. Picturing Passion is fundamentally about Anglo artists — their misconceptions and biases, and their fascination with perceived otherness.

The mythologizing and fetishizing of the “West” remains pervasive in New Mexico, where tourists expect to see harmful clichés such as ruthless cowboys, unoccupied landscapes, and primitive Native communities. Picturing Passion expertly enters this dialogue. The mythologization of the Brotherhood is not an isolated case — it is reflective of the larger story of the Southwest, and of the American project.

When Waguespack began his current position as curator of 20th century art at the state’s Museum of Art, his first task was to get to know the collection. “I had expectations of what I would find — landscapes, portraits of Native people with varying degrees of accuracy, et cetera,” he told Hyperallergic. “But I also soon noticed all of these paintings of the Penitente Brotherhood, who I didn’t know much about at the time…I had just heard the stories. All of these prominent artists produced work about this group.”

As an outsider, Waguespack was aware of the sensitivities that might arise surrounding the exhibition. As museums are becoming increasingly self-reflexive and responsive to community needs, curators are responsible for asking what voices are being privileged and what publics are being served. Given this framework, and after conversations with local colleagues, Waguespack decided to organize the exhibit specifically around artistic visions of the Brotherhood. He asked himself what his preconceptions about the Penitentes were, and saw that they all stemmed from folklore and art. “In the exhibit, the focus is on the artists and their own conceptions of the communities — sometimes positive and sometimes negative. I looked to address these views […] and invited visitors to question their own perspectives and misconceptions.”

Russell Cheney, “New Mexico (Penitente)” (1929), oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 39 1/2 inches (courtesy New Mexico Museum of Art, photo by Cameron Gay)

At the beginning of the exhibition, visitors are greeted by Russell Cheney’s “New Mexico (Penitente).” Known primarily for his post-impressionist work in New England, Cheney visited New Mexico only once while healing from tuberculosis. The piece is a masterfully composed still life, with a bulto of St. Francis commanding the frame. Backed by the Ranchos de Taos Plaza, he is flanked by a white cross, an axe, and paper flowers, imagery emblematic of the Brotherhood. Waguespack explained that “for somebody who didn’t know a lot about New Mexico, the icon of our region was the Penitente.” Cheney’s fascination with the Brotherhood worked to make the community a regional icon, echoing far beyond northern New Mexico.

Picturing Passion is split into several sections based on the artists’ subject matter. Perhaps the most compelling of these sections looks at depictions of moradas, Penitente chapter houses for religious worship. Here, paintings and photographs of the seemingly-mysterious buildings work to further mystify members of the Brotherhood. For example, Joseph Henry Sharp’s 1934 “Penitentes,” is, to the untrained eye, a representational image of members of the Brotherhood worshipping inside of a morada. But the scene depicted was entirely fabricated by the artist, a discovery Waguespack made while speaking with a member of the Brotherhood. The so-called morada depicted was in fact the interior of a chapel adjacent to the artist’s studio, and the figures were figments of his imagination.

Also in the morada section, Waguespack takes particular interest in the work of Cady Wells, a Massachusetts native who created some of the “darkest images of the Southwest that we have.” Waguespack explained that Wells “related very strongly to the Brotherhood — the act of penance and the secrecy of the community of men in the morada appealed to him. The group offered him some kernel of hope or alternative way of being that was therapeutic for him.” This is apparent in his work, which is often intensely emblematic of the qualities of religious practice in the region: “we think of [New Mexico] as a place full of sunshine and Aspens, but [Wells] changes it to make it so dark and emotionally powerful.” According to Waguespack, Wells and Georgia O’Keefe were great friends, and in a letter to him, she even admitted that he was among the best painters in the region, second only to O’Keeffe herself.

Gustave Baumann, “Penitente Ceremony” (1922), woodblock print, 7 3/4 x 6 7/8 inches (courtesy New Mexico Museum of Art, photo by Cameron Gay)

The final portion of the exhibit includes pieces made by members of the local Hispano community. By bringing these in dialogue with the outsider works of Gustave Baumann and Ansel Adams, Picturing Passion opens up a larger dialogue about self-representation, community, and Western romanticism. “What I really hoped to be able to contribute with this exhibit was to make visitors more mindful about the way that artistic representation comes to define the way we understand people, cultures, and groups that likely deserve re-evaluation,” said Waguespack.

One significant gap in this discussion is the lack of Indigenous voices reflecting on the Brotherhood and the larger impacts of settler colonial religious oppression in the region. Though this may have been beyond the scope of the exhibition, discussions of representation and otherness in New Mexico are not complete without these perspectives, which have long been systematically excluded from museological spaces.

Picturing Passion is a balancing act. It provides a broad introduction to who the Penitentes are through written descriptions of moradas and religious processions and a small selection of items produced by community members, such as death carts. But the exhibition takes a clear stance against sensationalizing rumors, and foregrounds the fundamental values of the organization: devotion to both community and faith. The visual display and its written narrative are subversive — they focus on outsider interpretations explicitly to draw attention to the lack of perspectives from within the Brotherhood itself.

Picturing Passion: Artists Interpret the Penitente Brotherhood continues through August 16, 2020 at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The exhibition was curated by Christian Waguespack.

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