An angel with a gun is not the most common depiction of the divine messenger. It brings to mind the album art of a death metal band. But the Palace of the Governors has an oil painting, created in Peru in the 1700s, titled Ángel arcabucero/Archangel with Musket. The standing figure with a richly embroidered overcoat (and very puffy sleeves) and a fine pair of wings holds a firearm at the ready.
“I thought this was absolutely stunning the first time I saw it,” said Alicia Romero, co-editor with Daniel Kosharek of the new book New Mexico’s Palace of the Governors: Highlights from the Collections. “I had never known about these arcabuceros, but it’s typical in what is now Bolivia for a series of archangels, besides the three that are most recognizable in Catholic tradition — Michael, Gabriel, and Rafael — to be armed with muskets, like soldiers of God. The artisans of these South American paintings were mostly indigenous or mestizos.”
The painting is one of the 200 color and black-and-white photographs in the book. They show a small but fascinating percentage of the more than a million photographs and almost 17,000 three-dimensional objects in the collections of the Palace of the Governors, the oldest continuously used public building in the United States.
It was first built in the second decade of the 17th century as the casas reales (royal houses) of Spain’s northernmost outpost, and was connected to Mexico City by the Camino Real (Royal Road). Indians destroyed and remodeled the structure(s) during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, then the Spanish rebuilt the “palace” after their return in 1692. For more than a century, it housed a succession of Spanish officials, then 17 Mexican governors in the years between Mexico’s 1821 independence and the U.S. takeover in 1846. Finally, more than a dozen territorial governors inhabited the building before the first capitol building was erected in Santa Fe in 1886. (The Confederate flag also flew on the Palace for a little over two weeks in the spring of 1862.)
The Palace of the Governors and its photo archives, Fray Angélico Chávez Library, and Palace Press are now part of the New Mexico History Museum.
The new book has a total of 11 contributors. By far the longest chapter is “Collections from the Photo Archives” by Hannah Abelbeck, the photo archivist at the Palace. It features 65 photographs, ranging from early images by William Henry Jackson (Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1872), John K. Hillers (Canyon de Chelley, 1879), and Thomas J. Curran (Bird’s-eye View of Santa Fe from the Capitol, looking north, 1891) to modern images by Janet Russek, Don Usner, Kevin Bubriski, and others.
Museum curator Cathy Notarnicola’s chapter about the Palace collections is illustrated with pictures of a Chiricahua Apache saddlebag, a Colt .44-40 revolver, a copper still, a silk kimono, a flapper dress, a stagecoach-style trunk, and a Will Shuster armature model of Zozobra. There are also chapters about landscape photography (by Edward Ranney), photographic portraits (Richard Rudisill), the Palace Press (Tom Leech), and the Fray Angélico Chávez Library (Heather McClure).
In his chapters, Kosharek (the recently retired longtime curator of the photo archives) presents the stories of cased images such as daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, pinhole photography, and portraits of Native Americans, illustrating the book with dozens of fascinating examples.
“This was one of my assignments when I first got on board in August,” said Romero, curator of Spanish Colonial, Mexican, and Chicano/a History at the New Mexico History Museum. “I went to the database and balanced out what was already there with Daniel’s selection of photography.” Her chapter, “Spanish Colonial Art of the Americas,” shows pieces by such renowned creators of painted and carved saints as José Rafael Aragón, the Laguna santero Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco, and José Aragón, José Rafael’s brother. She wanted to include an overview of some of the most recognizable New Mexico santeros.
“A lot of the retablos and bultos are from the Larry Frank Collection that was purchased by the state in 2007 and is one of the most important collections in the Southwest,” Romero said. “I’m a historian, so when I look at Miera y Pacheco, who was so instrumental in Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico — he was a soldier, an explorer, a cartographer, and an artist — it’s amazing to think about the local political and cultural scene at the time.”
Opening the book, she pointed to the image of a 1760 retablo of Santa Barbara by the artist. The context includes crenellated towers in the background. “Yeah, he was from Spain, originally,” Romero said. “And he made early maps of this area and went on expeditions. Another exhibition we hope to produce in the near future is about the 1776 expedition of Father Dominguez and Father Escalante. They left from the Palace of the Governors seeking a route to Monterey, California, and ended up making a giant circle around what is the Four Corners area. Miera y Pacheco was with them.”
Romero also wanted to connect New Mexico to the larger colonial context. “Sure, we were isolated up here in Santa Fe,” she said. “We were the northernmost outpost of the Spanish empire, but that doesn’t mean that we were disconnected with what was going on in Mexico City.” One of the powerful linkages was Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Marian form that reportedly appeared to Mexican native Juan Diego in a series of miraculous apparitions in Tepeyac in 1531. Romero includes an image of Guadalupana, painted by José Rafael Aragón in about 1861, in the book.
“She’s a beloved figure in New Mexico, just as she is in Mexico. When this piece was created, we were in what people like to call the Mexican period, the idea being that Mexicano came long before 1810,” when Mexico’s independence movement began, she said. “People had regional identities. It wasn’t just that you were a Spaniard in 1820 and all of a sudden you were a Mexican in 1821. She’s a beautiful example of that deeper connection to the heart of Mexico.”
A splendid selection of the objects shown in New Mexico’s Palace of the Governors: Highlights from the Collections is featured in an exhibition at the Albuquerque Museum, which was where the idea for the highlights project began. “This all started four years ago when I met with Andrew Connor [at the time the museum’s curator and now its director], and I pitched the idea of doing an exhibit on the history of photography as represented in the photo archives,” co-editor Kosharek said. “Then it expanded to the idea of a larger exhibition space, and I thought it could be an opportunity to bring the whole Palace into the picture.
Just as the book represents the first publication of broad-gauge miscellany from the Palace’s collections, the Albuquerque exhibition, titled A Past Rediscovered: Highlights from the Palace of the Governors, is the first museum show featuring a comprehensive selection of images and artifacts from the Palace. Some items in the book are not in the exhibit because they are too fragile to travel.
Included in the museum show of more than 300 items are photographs by Ben Wittick, Laura Gilpin, and Eadweard Muybridge; letters from Billy the Kid; rare firearms; pictures of Ansel Adams photographing landscapes; images of lowriders; and artist Gustave Baumann’s prints, tools, and woodblocks. “The selection of objects explored, pictured, and explained reveal the depth, richness, and bright hope for the future of this land of ours, the storied Land of Enchantment,” Kosharek said.
In early 2020, the current renovations and improvements at the Old Palace should be complete, and the renovated space will open with a new exhibit titled Palace Seen and Unseen: Architecture, Archives and Archaeology. “We’re working with archaeologists Stephen Post and Cordelia Snow on that,” Romero said. At about the same time, the Albuquerque Museum show, which runs through Oct. 20, will be restaged in the New Mexico History Museum’s Herzstein Gallery. New audiences will have the chance to view photographs of ancient Indian architecture and see a sampling of the more than 250 firearms in the Palace collection, a 1942 photo of Romanian prisoners of war from the Battle of Stalingrad, Baumann’s printing press, and an ethereal photo of a Buddha statue.
“It illustrates the strength and diversity of our collections,” Romero said. “We were really excited to show the people of New Mexico all the things we have in this collection, which belongs to all the citizens in this state. One of the ideas we were trying to follow is, what can we put in the show and in this book that has not been on display? Maybe the misfits? Some are little gems we’ve been saving for the right time.” ◀
New Mexico’s Palace of the Governors: Highlights from the Collections, edited by Daniel Kosharek and Alicia Romero, Museum of New Mexico Press, 212 pages, $34.95