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The New Mexican's Weekly Magazine of Arts, Entertainment & Culture Monday, July 28, 2014

Orientalism in Santa Fe

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Posted: Friday, September 20, 2013 5:00 am

Santa Fe is famous for its brown and round Spanish-Pueblo Revival architecture, epitomized by structures like the Palace of the Governors portal and Cristo Rey Church. But the city is also peppered with buildings in other historical styles, from Territorial-style structures inspired by 19th-century neo-Classicism to Craftsman-style bungalows. But perhaps the most striking building in Santa Fe’s historic districts is the Scottish Rite Center, a fine example of Moorish Revival architecture. This building is evidence of a deep and enduring interest in the Orient, wherever one chooses to locate it — from southern Spain and North Africa to the Middle East and East Asia. Did you ever wonder why there is a copy of a famous second-century A.D. seated Buddha from Mathura, India, chained to the fence of Serets on Sandoval Street? And why is the Orientalist fantasy hotel the Inn of the Five Graces such a popular lodging choice for visitors? Does Santa Fe have more Buddhist centers per capita than any other U.S. city? What about yoga studios?

As Richard Francaviglia notes in Go East, Young Man: Imagining the American West as the Orient (2011), almost from the beginning of the European invasions of the Americas more than 500 years ago, newcomers used oriental imagery, stories, and frames of reference to describe and explain the people, places, and landscape of the “New World.” The native peoples of the Americas were often equated with the Islamic Moors, who ruled much of Spain for 700 years until the final capitulation of Granada to King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabel in 1492. Apart from the large number of words of Arabic origin in Spanish (including albóndiga, adobe, almohada, and Guadalupe), Islamic influence can be clearly traced in the art and architecture of Spain and its former overseas colonies. Examples of Moorish or mudejar elements in Spanish colonial arts include elements like tile work, ceramics, and complex wooden ceilings in the artesonado style. Some early Mexican churches built for the natives, like San José de los Naturales in Mexico City and the Capilla Real in Cholula, were even modeled after Spanish hypostyle mosques, such as the famous example at Córdoba. The argument was that the natives were pagans, like the Moors, and as such, they might relate to Christianity better if they could worship in religious spaces used by the non-Christians most familiar to the Spanish. All pagans are the same anyway, right?

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