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Santo Niño de Atocha

by Mary Jane Garza

The legends surrounding saints through the ages are fascinating-the heroic deeds of Joan Arc, the humble rebelliousness of Martin de Porres and of course the beautiful words of Frances of Assisi. These heroic men and women gave their lives for what they believed. Yes it is the child saints that have a special place on earth, not only for their angelic innocence for the uniqueness of their being. There aren't that many of them.
The Santo Niño de Antocha, who is popular in US, Mexico and Cuba, is very dear to many people myself included The first miracle attributed to him occurred sometime between the 14th and 15th century, when Spanish Christians were given little to eat the only and the only visitors allowed were children. One day a child in pilgrim's garb whit a gourd of water hung on an staff and small basket of bread arrived at the prison. He gave every prisoner bread and water and left with his gourd and basket still full. Sine then the Santo Niño de Atocha has been considered that saint of prisoners and those in a bind and, more recently, of travellers, especially immigrants trying to enter the US.
When I learned that Mexic-Arte Museum had exhibit dedicated to him, I knew it was a must-see. I wasn't disappointed. "El Santo niño de Antocha: Faith, Art and Culture" was in Austin this summer as the first US stop in a tour that travels to San Antonio, Chicago, New York then on to Guanajuato and Aguacalientes, Mexico.
The exhibit includes over 100 exvotos, more than 30 retablos, several montages, an installation and three statues of the Niño Santo de Antocha. Created by the Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivar and Frida Kahlo, in Mexico City, the exhibit first opened there last fall being in the planning stages for several years. This excellent show is the result of much hard work by the Casa Estudio, Mexic-Arte Museum, the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes and the Consejo Nacional Para la Cultura y las Artes in Mexico.
The exvotos in the exhibit, dating from the 1800's to the present, represent fraction of what is in the archives of the Santuario del Santo Niño de Antocha de Plateros in Fresnillo, Zacatecas, Mexico, from where they were done borrowed. The earliest exvoto in the Sanctuary dates from 1803 and is done in oil on metal. It proclaims the saint's involvement of a solder's salvation from the death. These small fascinating woks of the art, most of which are not signed by their creators, offer a unique documentation of world and local events, changing fashions and artistic styles, epidemics, natural disasters and of course miracles.
Even though exvotos were often created by untrained artists, the careful attention to perspective and detail, figures in action poses and the steady hand that was needed to do the fancy script popular during the 1800s makes these pieces colorful works of folk art.
The centerpiece of this wonderful exhibit was the installation by Mexican Lourdes Almeida. A photographer who also works in mixed media, Almeida made large, elaborate altar on which statue of El Niño from the sanctuary was placed. The altar was a long table painted by the artist which was decorated with artificial flowers and elaborately carved candles. Large gold and white paper cutouts that symbolized rosaries, created by the Sanctuary nuns, hung on either side of the altar from the ceiling, forming a sort visual frame. The beautiful stillness of the museum, the old wooded floors and high ceilings served only to compliment the installation and gave the entire exhibit serene felling that would not have been achieved in a modern building.
The exhibit's montages were also created by the nuns. Made from the thousands of milagros left each year at the Sanctuary, the sisters collected the small metal amulets and put together designs such as the Virgin and the cross on wooden panels. The largest of these montages, depicting the Niño de Atocha, is comprised of approximately 28,000 milagros. The physical weight of the piece severs as an analogy of the weight of so many prayers and petitions.
A retablo of the Santo Niño, dating form the 1800s and painted by ML Garza, which is normally housed in the Spanish Governor's Palace in San Antonio, was also included in the exhibit. The fifteen inch high oil in wood painting is though to be one of the earliest images of this type from the border area. The primitive design, different from some of the fancier retablos done on metal, is a simple cross-hatch pattern in red that accents the yellow ochre backdrop of the Niño sitting under a stylized flower.
Other retablos on display were from the 1800s to early 1900s. These exquisite works, done on small sheets of tin or other metal, are wonderful for their colorful iconography and differing depictions of the child saint. Some show him barefoot, others in shackles and some depict the seashell on the child's lapel, indicating that he is a pilgrim. All showed the standard icons of a basket, gourd, staff and a hat with a feather that are attributes of the Niño Antocha.
A small statue of el Niño, by the San Antonio based Tejano santero Alfredo L. Rodriguez, was created specially for the exhibit. Rodriguez's contemporary rendition depicts the child saint sitting in a ladder-back chair and wearing a hat typical in style to Texas during the 1840s. Made from Mexican pine, native cypress and basswood, the simply carved and richly painted saint sat high on a pedestal, illuminated by a single spotlight. The seemed statue to float is space, as if guarding the retablos on display in the small room.
The catalog accompanying the exhibit, "Fe, Arte y Cultura: Santo Niño de Antocha. Exvotos," was painted in a limited, hardbound edition of a 1,000 of Mexico. Covered in blue satin, it contains numerous color plates as well ass several essays about the Niño. An excellent article by Blanca Garduño Pulido on how exvotos and retablos influenced contemporary art in Mexico and parts of the US, along with a section about santeria and Eleggua's association with Niño, also offer interessing insight.

Elleggua is know as the one who "opens and closes doors," thereby affecting a person's destiny. The Casa Estudio in Mexico City choose to have "Fe, Arte, y Cultura. Santo Niño de Antocha" as their first exhibit of the new millennium, as if to "open" the way to a new era and renewed hope for mankind.