Did you ever wonder why one of the murals in the St. Francis Auditorium at the New Mexico Museum of Art shows a gang of ancient Maya men garbed in jaguar pelts and green quetzal feathers? The auditorium murals, Mayas and all, are intimately tied to the history of the building and to a few of the main players in the story of art and culture in Santa Fe a century ago.
Enter Edgar Lee Hewett, Southwestern archaeologist and founding director of both the School of American Archaeology and the Museum of New Mexico. In the fall of 1911, Hewett was approached by the San Diego businessman David Collier to organize exhibits for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915, planned to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal. Among the attractions Hewett and his team eventually created were an Indian village staffed with actual Pueblo and Navajo families, a sham Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwelling, and anthropology exhibits that most famously featured several casts of colossal stone monuments from the Maya ruins of Quiriguá in Guatemala. Hewett also proposed a New Mexico building to highlight the state’s cultural resources. World’s fairs commonly featured exhibits and buildings sponsored by foreign countries, and those held in the U.S., beginning with the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, usually showcased the economic and cultural contributions of each U.S. state.
Hewett hired Isaac Hamilton Rapp to design the New Mexico building for the San Diego fair. Rapp had already designed several buildings in Santa Fe, including the Territorial Capitol building (1903) and the governor’s mansion (1908). The San Diego project was not Rapp’s first foray into world’s fair architecture, as he designed the New Mexico pavilion at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, held in 1904 in St. Louis. That building more closely resembled a California mission than New Mexico-style adobe buildings. With the New Mexico building in San Diego, Rapp became a leading figure in the birth of Santa Fe Style architecture. Other players in the story were the archaeologists Sylvanus G. Morley and Hewett, the photographer Jesse L. Nusbaum, and the artist and photographer Carlos Vierra. Enthusiasm for Santa Fe’s adobe architecture began to increase after Nusbaum directed restorations of the Palace of the Governors, beginning in 1909, including replacing the Territorial-style wooden porch with a Spanish Colonial-style adobe portal.
In 1910, Morley bought and renovated, with Nusbaum’s help, the old Roque Lovato adobe at 311 Washington St. As discussed in an essay published in 1915 he wrote for Ralph Twitchell’s magazine Old Santa Fe, the renovation aimed to prove that Spanish Colonial style buildings, made of adobe and wood, were both historically interesting and well suited for modern living. In Nov. 1912, Morley also organized the New-Old Santa Fe Exhibition, under the auspices of the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce and City Planning Board, which viewed Northern New Mexico’s vernacular architecture as good for promoting local culture. So Rapp’s 1915 New Mexico building for the San Diego fair was a continuation of a vigorous cultural phenomenon in Santa Fe. The San Diego building was inspired by the architecture of the mission churches at the pueblos of Acoma, San Felipe and others. For the structure’s auditorium, Hewett envisioned murals that would narrate episodes in the life of St. Francis combined with scenes dealing with the activities of the Franciscan order in Spain, Mexico, and Spanish Colonial New Mexico.
Hewett’s choice to paint the murals, Donald Beauregard, had accompanied his School of American Archaeology expeditions in 1909 and 1910 as a project artist. A native of Utah, Beauregard trained as an artist in his home state as well as abroad. He traveled to Europe two times to study, the second time for two years beginning in 1911 on a scholarship funded by Hewett’s patron Frank Springer. In a letter he wrote to Hewett in June 1913, preserved in the Fray Angélico Chávez History Library at the New Mexico History Museum and published in Carl Sheppard’s The Saint Francis Murals of Santa Fe: The Commission and the Artist (1989), Beauregard discusses the preliminary watercolor sketches for the St. Francis murals and notes that he is not certain they will be satisfactory. He returned from Europe in fall 1913 and worked on the murals in a studio in the northwest corner of the Palace of the Governors from December until February 1914, when his deteriorating health forced him to consult a specialist in Denver. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer, had surgery, and returned to his family home in Utah, where he died in early May.
Although sketches for all six panels of the St. Francis Auditorium series survive, at his death Beauregard had completed just one section of the panel, titled Renunciation of Santa Clara. The idea was always that the murals would be reinstalled in Santa Fe after the fair, and so they were painted on canvas, rather than on a less portable support. With Beauregard’s death, Hewett had no one to finish the project, and he discussed with Springer whether they should ask the artist Sheldon Parsons if he could do the work. In the end, Springer did not know Parsons’ work, and they also thought his health was precarious. Finally, Hewett suggested that Kenneth Chapman and Carlos Vierra should finish the murals. Both were trusted Museum of New Mexico employees who had some artistic talent. Though the men were already occupied on other fair-related tasks, Hewett hoped that the murals might still be finished and installed in the New Mexico building at the end of 1915, almost a year after the fair opened. That never happened.
In an essay in The Maya Image in the Western World (1986), archaeologist Peter Harrison notes that Vierra moved from New York to Santa Fe in 1904 to recover from pneumonia. The following year he opened a commercial photography studio on the Plaza, and quickly became immersed in the city’s cultural life. He worked with Nusbaum on the restoration of the Palace of the Governors, beginning in 1909. Three years later, for Morley’s New-Old Santa Fe Exhibition, Vierra made both photographs and paintings of adobe houses and churches. Many of his 5 x 7 glass negatives of New Mexico mission churches, held by the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives at the New Mexico History Museum, are difficult or impossible to distinguish from Nusbaum’s images, often taken at the same time.
Hewett’s anthropological and archaeological exhibits for the San Diego fair required extensive batteries of visual material, from Edward S. Curtis’ photos of Native Americans and a reconstructed village based on the Zuni and Taos pueblos to casts, sculptures, and paintings of ancient Maya objects and cities. The first issue of El Palacio (published in November 1913 and readable online at www.archives.elpalacio.org) reported that Vierra was at work on eight large paintings of ancient Maya cities to be shown at the fair. He went to Central America in spring 1914 to see Maya ruins firsthand and to participate in the expedition that made casts of several large sculptures at Quiriguá, Guatemala. The Quiriguá cast project has been taken up in this column (see “Casts of Ancient Monuments,” April 27, 2012, online at www.pasatiempomagazine.com), and the results can still be appreciated in the San Diego Museum of Man, itself the old California Building from the 1915 fair. In the end, Vierra completed only six of the projected eight paintings of the ruined cities of Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Quiriguá, Copán, Tikal, and Palenque. There is no evidence he ever visited any Maya ruins beside Quiriguá — he relied upon printed drawings and photographs. The main book in question was Alfred P. Maudslay’s Biologia Centrali-Americana, published in London from 1889 to 1902, which includes more than 400 photographs, drawings, and maps of ancient Maya ruins. Maudslay was an English explorer of independent means who traveled to Mexico and Central America several times beginning in the mid-1870s. The casts, photos, and drawings his team made at Palenque, Copán, Quiriguá, Tikal, and Chichén Itzá would prove invaluable for deciphering Maya hieroglyphic writing. At the same time they established a remarkable corpus of images of the pre-Columbian Maya world that could be and was exploited for popular entertainment, or as we would say today, edutainment.
The list of places Maudslay visited and documented nearly matches the cities Vierra chose to paint for the San Diego fair. A photograph by Nusbaum from 1913 or 1914 shows Vierra painting a view of the ruined city of Uxmal, Yucatán, which he likely adapted from William H. Holmes’ Archaeological Studies Among the Ancient Cities of Mexico (1895-1897). Holmes was a senior colleague and advisor to both Hewett and Morley. At the time of the San Diego fair, Holmes was director of the U.S. National Museum, and he sold Hewett casts of Maya monuments that are still on display at the Museum of Man, including stone serpent-shaped columns from Chichén Itzá. The combined library of the School of American Archaeology (which evolved into the present-day School for Advanced Research) and the Museum of New Mexico counted at least one copy of the Maudslay and Holmes volumes in its collection by the time Vierra was working on the San Diego murals, and the Maudslay set he consulted is still in the library of the Laboratory of Anthropology.
When the second Legislature of New Mexico (1915-1916) voted to construct an art museum in Santa Fe, Nusbaum was charged with building a modified version of Rapp’s New Mexico Building from San Diego. Chapman and Vierra completed the Beauregard murals in time for the museum opening in 1917. Of the six panels, Beauregard’s initial sketch for Preaching to the Aztecs and Mayas was most altered by Vierra. The original watercolor study shows a group of Spanish soldiers in the left panel of the triptych. The horses march forward and a soldier points a lance at the Natives in the right panel. Between them a Franciscan friar, head down, blesses (or menaces?) the Indians with a cross. Beaureagard conveys the idea that his natives are ancient Mexicans by dressing them in loincloths and shields with pre-Columbian Aztec designs, and especially by grouping them around a colossal stone idol. A cactus in the foreground suggests a highland Mexican setting. The large sculpture that anchors the composition at the extreme right is a fairly accurate depiction of a real object from the ruined city of Teotihuacan, which had been moved to the Museo Nacional de México about the turn of the 20th century. At the time, archaeologists thought Teotihuacan was occupied by the Toltec civilization, which preceded the Aztecs in central Mexico. For Beauregard, the monolithic sculpture symbolized both pre-Columbian Mexico and the pagan beliefs the Spanish wished to extirpate in the New World. In Beauregard’s image, a man kneels praying to the deity, while another with a shield answers the aggressive stances of the Spanish soldiers and cleric with an equally bellicose gesture.
Just as Hewett’s archaeological and anthropological exhibits at the San Diego fair had a decidedly pre-Columbian Maya slant that matched the efforts of the School of American Archaeology in Mexico and Central America, so did this mural, after Vierra was through with it. He shifted the action from Mexico’s central highlands to the Yucatán Peninsula, dropped the Teotihuacan goddess sculpture, and substituted a building loosely adapted from at least two structures at the ruins of Chichén Itzá: the so-called Iglesia, and one of the many buildings at that site that have columns carved like rattlesnakes, perhaps the Castillo or Upper Temple of the Jaguars. At the right, several figures kneel or stand in front of a circular stone altar that Vierra adapted from Altar Q at Copán. The original sculpture is a rectangular block with images of 16 men on the sides and a long hieroglyphic text on its upper surface.
The Maya men who confront the Franciscan are copied from sculptures at yet another ancient Maya city, Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico. Palenque’s Temple of the Sun also served as the model for the building viewed in hazy silhouette. Vierra’s sources here were the same he used for the earlier San Diego canvases, namely Maudslay and Holmes. It seems likely, as Sheppard thought, that Vierra’s scene refers to the conquest of the Yucatán in 1542. It may also allude to the an incident in 1519, when Hernán Cortéz landed in Cozumel, his first landfall after leaving Cuba on an expedition that would eventually lead, two years later, to the conquest of Mexico. In any case, the scene is an allegorical tableau, loaded with anachronisms that tell us that Hewett, Vierra, and Springer were more concerned with the thematic content of the mural cycle than with historical accuracy. As the architectural historian Chris Wilson notes in The Myth of Santa Fe (1997), altogether the completed murals were a sophisticated allegory combining the history of St. Francis of Assisi, the discovery and conquest of America, the missionization of New Mexico, and the activities of the School of American Archaeology in Mexico and Central America. The Spanish did fight the Maya at the city of Chichén Itzá, but the city was in ruins. Likewise, for a mural entitled Preaching to the Mayas and the Aztecs, the only references to Aztec Mexico in Vierra’s painting are the designs on the shield of the man at the right and also on the back of the cloak of the figure seated before the altar. In the latter case, the artist copied the design from a series of textile designs painted in the Codex Magliabechiano, an Aztec-related manuscript painted after the conquest of Mexico. The codex is now housed in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence, though Vierra may have known it from a facsimile published in 1904 in Rome by the Duc de Loubat.
Vierra’s mural for the St. Francis Auditorium marked the high tide for the Museum of New Mexico and School of American Archaeology involvement in Maya archaeology. By the time the murals were dedicated in 1917, the U.S. had entered World War I, and many of Hewett’s Quiriguá staff enlisted. Nusbaum fought in the trenches in France. And Morley, who had left in 1914 to work for the Carnegie Institution of Washington, was in Honduras, scouting for German submarines for U.S. Naval Intelligence. ◀