Morada Architecture: Northern New Mexico Arts and Crafts

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Miracles seem to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar, but upon our perceptions being made fine. For a moment, our eyes can see and our ears hear what is always there about us.
― Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop

Our interest in the moradas of the Penitente Brotherhood of Northern New Mexico arises out of their importance as a form of sacred architecture. A review of photos of their buildings reveals a consistency of form and massing, as though there was guided intention in their planning. These structures evolved without the involvement and direction of a conventional orthodox organized religion. They are a folk vernacular with elegant form, developed outside an organized central hierarchy. They appear to have arrived out of “necessity” craftsmanship, an impulse to create place. The manner and style are similar to Outsider Artists who have no formal training, yet produce art just for the sake of making art.

Penitente morada in Truchas, NM, under restoration

The Spaniards who settled Northern New Mexico brought with them a strong connection to their Catholic faith. Daily life was guided by their religion. Planting and harvesting cycles often coincided with commemorations of saints, resulting in many celebrations on their feast days. The shortage of priests in the remote northern areas of New Mexico made it difficult to serve the Catholic faithful. Many men in these communities were members of the Brotherhood of the Penitentes and stepped up to be lay ministers for the church.

Hand-carved and painted altar by Isabro Ortega

Their ceremony was at its peak during Holy Week, when services took place inside the moradas (gathering places). In the mid-1800s, Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Salpointe decried their ‘stations of the cross’ re-enactments–carrying life-size wooden crosses over many miles of highway, staged crucifixions, and blood-letting. The Brotherhood was renounced by the mainstream Roman Church as being an extreme profession of faith and the sect was dissociated from the Church.

In the 1940s, the penitentes were again invited to participate in Catholic services, which they accepted. Their devotion and some traditional rituals continue into the present day; the Catholic Church requests that their practices be conducted in private gathering places created by the sect. The morada is one place where the brotherhood can come together and worship. Currently, they open their doors to the public once a year and invite them to participate in Holy Week services. Much curiosity remains about this sect, whose mystery may cease to exist when the current generation passes on.

Our architecture firm is more interested in the artististry and craftsmanship that the Brotherhood of Penitentes contributed to the built environment of our country. We make it a practice not to judge the beliefs and traditions of those whose architecture we study, preferring to understand the specific aesthetic of their distinct styles, forms, and functions of their structures.

During the process of our early research here in Northern New Mexico, it was our good fortune to identify, talk to and meet leaders of the Penitente Brotherhood in Chimayo, Truchas, and Abiquiu. Brother Isabro in Truchas graciously invited us into the home he is crafting by hand from the inside out. The house where he lives is directly across from the morada he oversees and is obviously still a ‘construction zone.’ The 60-year old Isabro tells us it “may be finished in the year 2040.” The tools of his trade–saws, clamps, paint, stacks of lumber–lay beside his CDs, drum set, and elaborately hand-carved pantry. The most complete and beautiful ‘room’ in the home is an altar that this outsider artist carved and sensitively rendered with highly-pigmented paintings.

It’s easy to like this warm gentle man, whose serenity and wisdom are akin to a shaman. He’s proud of this work-in-progress and attributes his apparent talent to inspiration and guidance from the Divine.

We make plans to visit other moradas further up the high road north. We’ll let the gallery below speak for the creative endowment of this artist and craftsman, wherever its source lies.

(Note: the day after this blog was posted, we received a call from the Lifestyles editor of the New York Times, who was interested in adapting our research into a feature story on Mr. Ortega. Isabro Ortega was very excited and called to tell us that the New York Times spent an entire day with him. Click here for the New York Times story.)

Isabro Ortega’s intricately carved and painted kitchen pantry

In the gallery below: (3 photos) first structures in Truchas built by Spanish settlers in the mid-1700s who created a “compound” to protect themselves from attacks; Isabro’s home where doors, walls, staircases, and whole rooms are carved out of Ponderosa Pine, willow, cedar, and cactus–then brightly painted to highlight the patterns; the “altar” room with cactus ‘wood’ inlaid cross on door and depictions of Capilla de Nuestra de Senora Fatima and the Crucifixion; niches for pottery.

In the second gallery below, a “handwarming” fireplace at the front door; Isabro points to his view on the world; Steve and Isabro walk to the ornate chicken coop with carved ceilings inside; a rabbit hutch built by Isabro and his father when he was a boy; blue double door to coop; across the street from Isabro’s home is the Truchas Brotherhood Morada; Steve and Isabro say “goodbye” at the front door; finally, the Abiquiu Morada…look for the story in a later blog

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