Santa Feans who are interested in the arts of the Spanish colonial era, from the early 1500s through the 1820s, have enjoyed a rich offering of museum exhibitions thus far in 2014. Earlier this year, the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History hosted the Brooklyn Museum show Behind Closed Doors: Art in the Spanish American Home, 1492-1898. In late June, Painting the Divine: Images of Mary in the New World opened at the New Mexico History Museum and Palace of the Governors. And the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art just debuted Secrets of the Symbols: The Hidden Language in Spanish Colonial Art. As July winds down, we look forward to Spanish Market (July 26-27), the great celebration of New Mexico’s continuing engagement with Spanish colonial and 19th-century village arts such as bulto sculpture, retablo painting, filigree jewelry, straw appliqué, colcha embroidery, and weaving. In addition to these special events, Santa Fe’s museums, cultural institutions, and Roman Catholic churches have deep holdings of Spanish colonial works, made both south of the U.S.-Mexico border and in New Mexico.

One of the lesser-known Santa Fe collections of Spanish colonial objects was amassed by Maya archaeologist Sylvanus G. Morley, beginning about a century ago, and was donated to the Museum of New Mexico in 1945. The Morley Collection consists of about 100 works, made mostly in what is now Mexico and Guatemala, and encompasses mediums as diverse as painting, religious sculptures, silver, illuminated manuscripts, textiles, and furniture. Another component of the 1945 Morley gift is his fine Mesoamerican research library, which still can be consulted in the library at the Laboratory of Anthropology, part of the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture. The rest of the collection is split between the Museum of International Folk Art and the New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors. A large table from Guatemala is on loan to the Governor’s Offices, and an impressive gilded altarpiece was a gift to Amelia White and is now in the director’s office at the School for Advanced Research, formerly the School of American Research.

As an archaeologist for the Carnegie Institution of Washington from 1914 until his death in Santa Fe in 1948, Morley spent about half of every year in Mexico and Central America. The early years were spent on expeditions through the rain forests of northern Guatemala in search of ancient Maya monuments with hieroglyphic inscriptions. This work led to Morley’s great books, The Inscriptions at Copán (1920) and The Inscriptions of Petén (1937-1938). Between 1923 and 1940, Morley directed the Carnegie Institution’s archaeological excavation at the ruins of Chichén Itzá, in Yucatán, Mexico. His long residence in Latin America offered many opportunities to acquire Spanish colonial artworks and furniture. But he never hit pay dirt like he did in Guatemala City at Christmas in 1917. Morley was in Central America at the time on a two-year assignment as a spy for the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence. As Charles H. Harris and Louis R. Sadler recount in The Archaeologist Was a Spy: Sylvanus G. Morley and the Office of Naval Intelligence (University of New Mexico Press, 2009), the United States had just entered World War I, and there was much suspicion that the Germans would try to establish submarine bases in Mexico and Central America. Germany was keenly interested in Mexico, and we cannot forget the famous Zimmermann Telegram of January 16, 1917, which promised Mexico the return of the American Southwest if it declared war on the United States. The intent was to occupy the United States with war in its backyard, thus preventing its entry into the European theater. So Morley and other Americans, including his old friend curator Herbert J. Spinden, undercover as archaeologists and artists, traveled some 1,200 miles of Mexican and Central American coastline. Morley never saw a U-boat and never found good evidence of a single active German plot. But as Harris and Sadler point out, he established an intelligence network that was of great use to the United States after the war, when it sought to increase its influence in the region.

While Morley was in Guatemala City for Christmas, the area was struck by a devastating series of earthquakes. There was great loss of life, and many of the city’s historic buildings were either destroyed or badly damaged. As Morley recounted in an article published in 1918 in Natural History, some of the most ornate Spanish colonial religious establishments, like the convent of La Merced, were nearly leveled. Morley recalled much later, in an issue of El Palacio, that religious authorities in Guatemala decided to raise funds to rebuild their structures by selling surplus art and furnishings. Voilà — the archaeologist not only was a spy but now had a collection of Spanish colonial art.

After the war, Morley went back to full-time archaeology. We know little about the collection until summer 1926, when, according to letters in the Edgar L. Hewett Papers in the Angélico Chávez History Library (at the New Mexico History Museum), Morley was headed to Santa Fe for the season and was to be preceded in town by 10 crates of Spanish colonial art and furniture shipped from Guatemala to New Orleans on a United Fruit Company steamer. The fruit company had been helping Morley and Maya archaeology from the 1910s, when it allowed Hewett and SAR to excavate the ruins of Quiriguá, on one of its banana plantations in eastern Guatemala. United Fruit allowed Carnegie Institution archaeologists to travel for free to and from Mexico and Central America and also shipped tons of matériel for archaeological projects. Close connections between United Fruit and the U.S. intelligence community were forged during Morley’s time in the Office of Naval Intelligence, and the banana company was closely tied to the CIA’s overthrow of the Guatemalan government in 1954. Writing on May 5, 1926, to Lansing Bloom, assistant director of SAR and the Museum of New Mexico, Morley reminded Bloom of Hewett’s promise that he could store his furniture in three rooms at the eastern end of the Palace of the Governors. He continued, “The furniture is lovely stuff, and I know with your love of the Southwest that you will enjoy it. I expect to spend the entire summer in Santa Fe and probably well on into the Fall. I have apparently quite recovered from the dysentery but am alarmingly low in weight – 112 lbs, clothes and all.” Morley did spend the summer of 1926 in Santa Fe. He lectured at Hewett’s summer school of archaeology and also participated in a mock Maya virgin sacrifice at the dedication of a swimming pool at the home of Amelia White, a property that later was given to SAR. Later that summer, Morley and Herbert Spinden organized an ancient Maya-themed parade float called The Yucatantrums for the Santa Fe Fiesta Historical/Hysterical Parade.

By the mid-1940s, Morley and his second wife, Frances, were living half the year in Mérida, Yucatán, and the balance in Santa Fe, in a home they purchased and renovated at 451 Arroyo Tenorio. In 1945 the Morleys decided to make a gift of their Spanish colonial art, furniture, and silver, as well as their scientific library, to the State of New Mexico. An exhibition of about 150 Spanish colonial silver objects from the Morley Collection opened at the Laboratory of Anthropology on July 8, 1945, The New Mexican reported. With about 100 more works from the N.B. Field Collection (now at the University of New Mexico Art Museum), as well as loans from other Santa Feans, the exhibition was believed to be the largest of its kind ever mounted in the United States. The Morley silver consists of many plates, mugs, candlesticks, and spoons, as well as church-related objects like incense burners. According to accession records still held by the Museum of International Folk Art, much of the collection dates to the late 1700s and early 1800s. Many of the works feature assayers’ marks and hallmarks, like a large “M” used in Mexico City and an image of Santiago (or James, patron saint of Guatemala during the Spanish colonial era) on horseback above the Guatemalan volcanoes Agua and Fuego.

A second exhibition was planned for Morley’s collection of Spanish colonial religious art and furniture, to be held in the Ecclesiastical Room at the east end of the Palace of the Governors. The Fiesta edition of The New Mexican, published on Aug. 31, 1945, noted that Governor John Dempsey had accepted the Morley gifts the previous day and that the exhibition was now open to the public. The same paper noted that with the surrender of the Japanese and the end of World War II, Will Shuster was finally able to get explosives and fireworks for the annual burning of Zozobra. The Sept. 1945 issue of El Palacio was entirely devoted to the Morley gifts, and in addition to the text of speeches given by Dempsey, Hewett, and Archbishop Edwin V. Byrne, it printed an article by Morley about his collections.

Among the highlights are a large choir book, measuring 33 by 22 inches, from the Church of Our Mother of Mercy (La Merced), headquarters of the Mercedarian monks in Guatemala. Many of the 27 pages of parchment are illuminated with gold. They include music and words for the offices of Lauds and Vespers, prayers the monks recited morning and evening. Another significant object is a crucifix Morley bought in Mexico City, with Christ’s body carved of a single ivory tusk weighing more than 10 pounds. While Morley thought the work was made in the Philippines, museum records, possibly written by curator E. Boyd, ascribe the ivory to Goa, a Portuguese colony in western India and an important center of ivory carvings of Catholic themes. It is likely that the sculpture was imported to Mexico on the famous Manila trade galleons that connected Spanish colonies in the Far East with Spain’s American territories and thence with Europe. Morley’s article was followed by a contribution by Archbishop Byrne on symbolism in the Roman Catholic Church, presumably necessary for better understanding by El Palacio’s mainly Protestant readership. The archbishop discusses the basics of Catholic belief and ritual and how works in the Morley Collection, such as many priestly garments, were originally used.

Museum records show that in the years since 1945, many objects in the Morley Collection have been exhibited, often at the Palace of the Governors, in displays dedicated to faith in the Spanish colonial world. The only work from the Morley Collection currently on display at a Santa Fe museum is a broadsword at the New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors. ◀