Black is white, white is black

Infamous Taos crosses connect faith and mysticism with art

By Larry Torres
Posted 10/1/19

Across the centuries, the world has constantly been inundated by reports of secret religious cults, bloods rites and outlawed organizations.

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Black is white, white is black

Infamous Taos crosses connect faith and mysticism with art


Across the centuries, the world has constantly been inundated by reports of secret religious cults, blood rites, and outlawed organizations. The idea of being able to delve into their hidden practices has been a source of thrill and discovery for many curious people who are seeking deeper meaning in their lives. One of the latest manifestations stems from best-selling author Dan Brown, who has helped to bring out this secret resurgence to the foreground with his books The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol, Angels and Demons, and Origins.

     Among the symbols that Brown presents in his writings is that of the added meaning to the salvific power of the cross. The ancient Egyptians used the looped cross, called an “ankh" as an offering to the gods. To the ancient Chinese, the cross ideogram stood for “man." The crucified Jesus of the early church added the concept of “self-sacrifice” to it and Saint Francis handed it to the poor by replacing the more robust Jesus with a skinny, thin and bleeding Jesus.

     Historians in New Mexico typically try to categorize crosses and crucifixes by the artistic style and skill of their santeros, as saint-makers are called. Fresquís and Laguna crosses are unadorned and monochromatic, whereas Juan Miguel Herrera and Antonio Molleno crosses tend to be oblong and bloody. Rafaél Aragón’s work bears Christ images that are perfectly proportionate to their crosses. José Benito Ortega’s crosses have green- or blue-tinged Christs, meaning that Jesus has surrendered his spirit and breathed his last. The santero called “The Master of the Lattice Work” used to make Jerusalem-style crosses that look complicated, but to the discerning eye, are merely 12 geometrically intertwined crosses in one. The Master of the Mountain Villages used to depict Jesus hanging on Living Crosses noted for the sprouts and buds bursting forth from the wood of the cross with the promise of new life. More contemporary santeros adorned their crosses with folk saints like the bearded Portuguese princess Santa Librada, or with San Acacio dressed like a Civil War-style soldier in complete uniform. Tourists tend to have a preference for black lacquered, nondenominational, straw-appliquéd crosses.

     Is it any wonder then, that with the coming of statehood to New Mexico in 1912, a whole gamut of new adventure seekers, artists and inhabitants became enthralled by the myriad of crosses seen at every village church, capilla or morada? Just as mysterious to their eyes, were the large outdoor crosses called calvarios,” used by Los Hermanos Penitentes. These gigantic, unadorned wooden monuments to faith were sometimes venerated by passersby. Outside the time of Lent though, they only kept solitary vigil over their sites … until artist Georgia O’Keeffe graced the scene.

     This important female American art instructor left her teaching practice in Texas at the invitation of local tutelary doyenne, Mabel Dodge Luhan. The barren Southwestern landscape that surrounded Luhan’s home “Los Gallos” brought new dimensions to O’Keeffe’s minimalist art by putting nature in focus. O’Keeffe was fond of saying that with each painting she would tighten and retighten her focus until the defining detail spoke for the entire object. She preferred to paint things rather than people because “they don’t move and they don’t cost anything.” Beyond the magnificent flowers blooming in Luhan’s garden, O’Keeffe was fascinated by the two crosses located outside the morada just in back of Luhan’s home. The Black Cross was near the morada patio door and the White Cross was firmly planted about half a mile away, in the direction of the rising sun.

     O’Keeffe, who would become known for her gigantic flowers, bleached bones and animal skulls, was suddenly drawn to the simple beauty and symmetry of the calvario crosses. The Catholic faith of the local populace had already drawn her to the San Francisco de Asís Church in Ranchos de Taos. Her rearview perspective of the famous church cleverly masked the traditional front entrance view used by other Taos artists. In fact, with the passing of the years, many visitors in Ranchos would clumsily ask the church secretary if this was “the church of Georgia O’Keeffe?” Sometimes patiently — sometimes not — the church secretary would reply, “No, it is not the church of Georgia O’Keeffe. We never gave it to her. She wasn’t even Catholic; it is the church of San Fransico de Asís.”

     Religious or not, O’Keeffe understood the deeper meaning of the cross. She said, “I saw the crosses so often — and often in unexpected places — like a thin dark veil of the Catholic Church spread over the New Mexico landscape.”

     In an extreme place of mysticism like Taos, what seems to be is not always the only recognized truth. The black and white crosses of the Morada de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe are diametrically placed at the beginning and the end of the area of veneration. They mark the beginning and the end of the life of Jesus on Earth. In Spanish it is calledel rastro de la Sangre.

     The Black Cross in the patio, closest to the entrance of the morada, is used at a place where introductory prayer begins. It is the spot where the members of the Penitente Brotherhood shed their worldly positions and titles, and enter the place on equal footing as members of the family of God. Before the Black Cross, they recognize their humility as they pray for the salvation of the world. A traditional prayer before the Black Cross might be: Jesucristo sea mi guía y la flor donde nació y la Hostia Consagrada y the Cruz donde murió” (“May Jesus be my guide and the flower where he was born; may He be the Consecrated Host and the cross where He died.”) In an institutional church this would be the place where the faithful would dip their fingers into the holy water font and make the sign of the cross before approaching the altar.

     The long space looming between the crosses marks the thousands of steps along the Via Dolorosa that designated the various stopping points of Jesus as He wended his way to Calvary. They mark stops where He was sentenced before Pilate, where Jesus met his mother, where his face was wiped on Veronica’s veil, where Simon of Cyrene helped Him carry the cross, where He comforted the pious women of Jerusalem, where He stumbled and fell three times under the weight of the wood, where He was stripped and crucified and finally, where He expired and was taken down from the cross to be placed in his tomb.

     There is a legend that tells of a time when Dodge Luhan and friend/artist Dorothy Brett, trying to spy on the blood rites leading up to the White Calvario Cross, had to flee for their lives when they were discovered hiding in a nearby gully. The rites offered their mark the very heart of Penitente mysticism.

     The White Cross facing toward the setting sun holds another mystery: When one is approaching it from the Via Dolorosa side, it is of a brilliant white color. Prayers before it are very personal and private to the individual Penitentes. A traditional prayer here might be:“Adórote Cruz puesta en el monte Calvario donde murió mi Jesús para darnos la Luz y librarnos del contrario (“I adore you, O cross placed on Mt. Calvary where my Jesus died, to give us his light and free us from evil.”)

     But, as O’Keeffe observed, when the White Cross is seen framed against the setting sun, an optical illusion happens: it turns from white to black — as black as the other cross by the door. Life and death are interlinked as extreme colors within the same reality. Struggle is what turns black to white and then white back to black. Her painting,Black Cross with Taos Mountain,” enfolds this experience.



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