In 1974, internationally recognized embroidery master Carmen Benavente de Orrego y Salas held six colcha embroidery workshops in New Mexico. Born out of these workshops was a significant object of art, the Villanueva Tapestry, which documents the history of a region of Northern New Mexico. America’s Bicentennial was just two years away, and the project, when completed, would cover events in the Pecos River Valley from the pre-Spanish era up to 1976, the year of its dedication.
Villanueva, a village of less than 300 inhabitants in San Miguel County, seems an unlikely place for the monumental tapestry, which stretches 265 feet around the interior of the local church, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe), and is composed of 41 connected panels, each measuring approximately 3 feet wide and 2 feet high, and set inside a cactus rib frame.
Benavente de Orrego y Salas held one of her workshops Villanueva. Louis Hassenfuss, who was the parish priest at the time, suggested the women find a project to work on together as their experience in the workshop had a positive impact, and they wanted to continue working together.
“I heard that they were planning on doing some project for the Bicentennial,” says Elisea Garcia, 83, who was working as a nurse full-time in Santa Fe and part-time in Villanueva at the time. “I went up and asked Father Hassenfuss about it. I kind of halfway grew up in that area. My grandparents lived in El Cerrito. That’s where I spent all my summers in fact.”
Garcia wasn’t the only stitcher who wasn’t originally part of the workshop to join the project, which was made possible by NEA grant money from the Museum of International Folk Art. As the workshop participants recruited friends and family, it grew from 11 stitchers to 36. Mothers recruited daughters and grandmothers. And each of their names are recorded somewhere on the panels they created: Anna Lee Gallegos, Rosabel Gallegos, Sadie Lucero, and Mela Mondragon among them. Carlos Gonzales, the husband of one of the stichers, made the cactus rib frame.
“Most of what it shows is centered around the church,” says Mellie Gonzales, business manager of the church (no relation to Carlos Gonzales) a stone-walled structure that dates to 1830. “I guess when the settlers came, the church was the first thing they built.”
And the church is still the repository for the tapestry, its home for 45 years. It runs along both aisles of the nave, across the altar, up the stairs, and along the choir loft.
If you saw the tapestry in recent years, it may have appeared remarkably well preserved, but time and the elements did take a toll. Soot from the furnace and a fire that broke out in the nearby rectory in the 1980s left it soiled. At the suggestion of Cornerstones Development Director Maureen Vosburgh, it became the focus of an eight-day restoration project in April.
“Cornerstones has been in existence for 35 years, and we do historic preservation of historic structures and cultural preservation as well,” Vosburgh says. “The more I thought about the tapestry, it fit into that description.”
Vosburgh first saw the tapestry a few years after moving to New Mexico in 2014.
“As part of my getting to know the state, I would take little forays out of Santa Fe,” she says. “Somebody had mentioned that the tapestry existed in Villanueva, so I went up to take a look at it and was truly blown away.”
It was a worthy project for preservation, she says, not the least of reasons being its significance as a document of the region.
Weaving together history
Woven into the tapestry are narrative scenes depicting life and events that occurred in the region, from the coming of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado up the Camino Real to the founding of the Villanueva State Park, and from the life of notable figures such as Archbishop Robert Fortune Sanchez, to episodes in the lives of the stitchers’ family members.
“It was regular, usual life; the men in the resolana discussing things about the village, the children playing at the little schoolhouse,” says Garcia about a panel she made about her grandparent’s village. “ If you go along the river toward El Cerrito, there’s a little rock formation called La Ventana, which means the window. I put that in there. My grandfather used to bring the mail to El Cerrito in a little coach, so I have that in there too.”
Garcia completed three panels of the tapestry on her own, after choosing from a list of available subjects developed by the original stitchers.
“Quite a few of the subjects were already chosen, so I asked for the coming of Coronado, and I did that one and El Cerrito. I was in the middle of working on these and they said, ‘We still have some more subjects.’ So I asked my mother if she wanted to do this too.”
Garcia drew the outlines for a fourth panel depicting the Spanish fortification of La Cuesta, which was the original name for Villanueva, and her mother did the embroidery.” Finally, Garcia also made the panel detailing the life and works of Archbishop Sanchez.
“We worked on it for two years,” Garcia says. “It was a wonderful thing to be involved with. We all would get together, either at the sacristy — the priest had a large office there, and he would have a fire going when it was cold and raining — or at the old school. We would get together on Thursdays. We were provided with the yarn. The homespun was donated by a writer of an embroidery book from California. Her name was Jacqueline Enthoven."
In addition to the Thursday meet ups, each stitcher would take their panels home to work on them in their own time.
“We’d be in the middle of cooking something, and while it was boiling up, we did a few stitches here and a few there,” Garcia says. “Sometimes I worked on them late, late into the night.”
Among the events depicted in the Villanueva Tapestry is a May Crowning, a Marian devotional held in the Catholic Church each spring, which honors the mother of Jesus as the Queen of May.
“The May Crowning was something that used to be a lot more common in New Mexico,” Deputy State Historian Nicolasa Chávez says. “We don’t hear about May Crownings a lot anymore.”
Another panel depicts a Los Pastores play, a folk drama enacted at Christmas time about the shepherds and their visit to the nativity.
“It’s taken place since Medieval times in Spain, and it’s still done here in New Mexico, especially in Northern New Mexico,” Chávez says. “The tapestry shows the scene where the Devil is trying to divert the pastores from going to see the Christ child.”
“It’s artwork,” Vosburgh says. “It’s religious. It’s historical. It’s cultural heritage. And it’s been, on many occasions, likened to the Bayeux Tapestry in France. The idea that this tapestry in Villanueva, New Mexico, is compared to the Bayeux Tapestry, which is internationally famous, is remarkable.”
The Bayeaux Tapestry, which likely dates to the 11th century, is housed at the Bayeaux Museum in Normandy. It depicts events leading up to the Norman conquest of England and the Battle of Hastings. But, at 230 feet, it’s significantly shorter than the Villanueva Tapestry, and its historical focus is less grand in scope.
“The Bayeux Tapestry, even though it is embroidered and tells a story, and is immense in size — those are the things that are similar to the Villanueva Tapestry — reminds me more of the Seggesser Hide Paintings in that it depicts one major battle or scene,” Chávez says. “What I love about the Villanueva Tapestry is that it’s not this major battle. It depicts daily life and a multitude of historical events, not just one. It’s personal stories and cyclical, seasonal celebrations.”
Once Cornerstones approved the $30,000 restoration project, Vosburgh set about looking for a conservator to lead the project and hired Jeanne Brako, whose team consisted of Conservation Preparator Jack Townes, and interns Miquela Gallegos and Esperanza Sena.
“It’s a very unique situation,” Vosburgh says. “The parish priest, who’s from Nigeria, loved the idea that we’d be preserving the tapestry. We were not looking to the church to supply any funding. I was going to raise all the funding, so he immediately bought in.”
About a year after she initially saw the tapestry, Vosburgh planned a fundraising event at a private home. She hoped that she could raise all of the funds in one evening. But the coronavirus pandemic derailed her plans.
“We had no sooner sent out the invitations when we had word about COVID and had to retract it,” she says. “It took us into the following January to do a virtual fundraiser.
“When the conservator and her team went to look at the condition of the tapestry, her assessment of it was that it was pretty good condition. Part of that is because there are not a lot of windows in the church, so there’s not any sun damage. The church is used only for services.”
The tapestry is mounted flat again the church walls. Because each panel is connected to the next, Brako had to use a special kind of camera to get up behind it to assess the extent of any damage. The actual cleaning was a delicate, time-consuming process done with special chemicals, screens, and sponges.
The two young interns are members of the local parish.
“One of the girls has a lot of connections to the people involved in making it,” says Gonzales, the church’s business manager. “Her great-grandfather was the one that did the framing, and her grandmother and great-grandmother did some of the pieces.”
“One, in particular is very keen on being able to mentor others in preserving the tapestry in the future,” Vosburgh says.
The tapestry functions as a record of the lives and life ways of the region over a period of 400 years, making it of interest not only to historians but to the descendants of those who made it and those it depicts.
“I want it taken care of,” Garcia says. “I want it preserved for many generations to come, so that people see what we did. It’s not what you see in a fancy history book, but it is what we heard from our grandparents and great-grandparents. Those are the stories that are depicted on those panels.” ◀