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Zia Pueblo:
Nuestra Señora de la Asunción

1610–1628?; 1693

The mission church of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción at Zia rests on its mesa like a lion in its lair and looks eastward. Like Laguna, the church's golden white form contrasts markedly with the surrounding earthen colors of the pueblo, and also like Laguna, its visual primacy within the pueblo is assured by position and scale. The Espejo expedition reached Zia and found five towns in Cumanes province. Zia was the principal settlement, "having eight plazas or market places, and houses plastered or painted in many colors."[1] The pueblo occupied a site along the Jemez River and was built on the ruins of an earlier village. The houses, unlike those of most other pueblos, integrated basalt rock with the adobe mud, thereby replacing construction of purely adobe brick. The Indians were cautious and kindly to the strangers, at least initially, and provided them with provisions and even cotton mantas (blankets).

Under Oñate's pressure, the pueblo swore allegiance to the Spanish crown and the Catholic church at a meeting held at the Santo Domingo pueblo in July 1598. Fray Alonso de Lugo was placed in charge of Zia in 1598, and the first church followed soon thereafter. The convent was first mentioned in July 1613 and was probably founded by Fray Cristóbal de Quirós in 1610. Although the mission of San José de Giusewa maintained its own resident priest until its demise circa 1630, Santa Ana remained a visita of Zia and had been as early as 1614. Benavides mentioned seven churches in the province; Prince assumed that at least three of them must have been Jemez, Santa Ana, and Zia.[2] Then came the revolt of 1680 and the supposed ruin of the church.

In 1687 Governor Domingo de Cruzate, in an abortive attempt to retake New Mexico, attacked the pueblo in what was to be one of the bloodiest battles between the Spanish and the Indians.[3] Even allowing for inflation of numbers, the Indian losses must have been considerable. Cruzate claimed that about six hundred Indians were killed and that the seventy remaining were sentenced to ten years of slavery, "except for a few old men who were shot in the plaza."[4] It is no surprise that the villagers, recalling the horror of those previous few years, submitted peacefully to Vargas and agreed to rebuild the church. A large cross was erected in the main plaza, the stone base of which remains to this day.

When the mission was first established in 1598, it was dedicated to San Pedro and San Pablo. When the church was refounded in 1692, its attribution was changed to Nuestra Señora de la Asunción. Vargas found the church in the normal postrebel-


Zia Pueblo
The church and pueblo from the air.
[Dick Kent. 1960s]

Nuestra Señora de la Asunción
From the north the church—low and heavy—appears almost as a
geological formation.
[Odd Halseth, Museum of New Mexico]


Nuestra Señora de la Asunción,
[Source: Kubler, The Religious

lion condition: the roof and wooden elements were burned or destroyed, as were portions of the walls. But this symbolic desecration of sacred structures seemed to have satisfied the Indians in almost all instances, and pragmatically inclined, they used the four enclosing walls as corrals or cattle pens.

In the case of the Zia, however, the natives were not occupying the same site at the time of the Reconquest but had shifted some ten miles or so away from the old pueblo. Vargas wrote, "I ordered them to reoccupy their said pueblo, since the walls are strong and in good condition and also the nave and main altar of the church are in good condition, only lacking the wooden parts, which I ordered them to cut at the time of the next moon." Vargas promised them a saw, "so that they would be able to cut the said wood for the church and convent."[5] The church was rebuilt, and in its current form dates from this time to near the end of the seventeenth century.[6] Custos Juan Álvarez noted in 1706 that the church building "is now at a good height,"[7] which suggests that the rebuilding had not proceeded as quickly as Vargas had predicted or that, following the typical cycle, after a few years of neglect the church structure was once again in need of repairs.

John Kessell quoted at length Fray Manuel Bermejo, who, writing in 1750, claimed credit for another major rebuilding effort: "[I worked] personally with the Indians, without the help of said gentlemen [government officials], as I am doing at present on the church that I have begun from the foundation up and on the repair of the convento which was falling in ruins."[8] In all probability this did not extend to the actual reconstruction of the church from the foundations up but constituted only extensive reparation. (If Bermejo was dealing with the adobe erosion known as coving, in which the edge of the structure at the ground was undermined by splashing and undercutting, he would have indeed been working from the ground up.)

In 1760 the weary Bishop Tamarón made no comment on the church, merely saying that Zia "is two long leagues from Santa Ana over dunes and sandy places."[9] The 1750 census showed that there were about five hundred inhabitants in Zia, a considerable decline from its pre-European days of the village with eight plazas. As usual, it was Domínguez who provided the first really detailed description of the church:

The church is adobe with very thick walls with the door to the east. . . . The sanctuary is marked off by two steps made of wrought beams and from there to the center it measures 6 varas, being as wide as the


nave and as much higher as the clerestory demands. Choir loft like those mentioned before. It has four windows with wooden gratings on the Gospel wall, facing south, and one in the choir. The nave is roofed with forty good corbeled beams, and the clerestory rises along the length of the one facing the sanctuary, whose roof consists of eight beams like the foregoing.[10]

Domínguez credited Fray Francisco Xavier Dávila with the rebuilding of the church. Dávila was in residence at Zia during part of the 1750s and early 1760s and may have been responsible for yet another rebuilding effort.[11]

The convento was meager and basic, as were its furnishings.[12] In 1806 the church and its possessions were inventoried by Fray Mariano José Sánchez Vergara. He specifically noted an altarpiece commissioned in 1798 by Víctor Sandoval and Dona María Manuela and ascribed to the same santero who painted the reredos at Laguna (hence called the Laguna Santero): "This is all that this church possesses, and everything is in need of repair. To do so there are no settlers and funds to tap. Unless some measure is taken for this purpose nothing will improve."[13] Nothing ever improved in the battle against time and the elements, and the particularly annoying problem of the roof parapet meant that the outcome could be a stalemate at best. From the day of its completion, the church began to deteriorate, sometimes at an alarming rate.

Lieutenant Bourke, on the scene in 1881, also included Zia in his rounds. Matter-of-factly he stated, "Front of ruined church of the Virgin. . . . Interior going rapidly to decay. . . . The ceiling is riven pine slabs, and according to Jesus (son of the pueblo governor), is "muy viejo" (very old). The nave measured from the floor of the altar to the main door is 37 paces in length. Earthen ollas [ceramic jugs] are in position as holy water fonts."[14] By this time the church's roof had been lowered and the nave shortened (in comparison to Domínguez's description). The balconied facade might have been the result of rebuilding undertaken at this time.

Bourke was less kindly with his evaluation and verdict: "Interior rapidly going to decay. . . . The wooden figure of the Savior on the Cross must have been intended to convey to the minds of the simple natives the idea that our Lord had been butchered by Apaches. If so, the artist had done his work well."[15] Americans rarely took kindly to Hispanic-Indian imagery, whether to the "barbarity" of the designs at Cochiti that Prince cited or the not-infrequent comments about the "gory dolls" that filled the various altars.

Nuestra Señora de la Asunción
The unrestored Neo-Gothic altarpiece shines under the roof light.
[Odd Halseth, Museum of New Mexico]

Nuestra Señora de la Asunción
The choir loft (east) end at the time of the 1920s restoration.
[Odd Halseth, Museum of New Mexico]


Bandelier, in his Final Report of 1888, wrote, "The church is large and the outer walls are asserted to be those of the church prior to 1680, the new walls being built inside of them. The appearance justified the presumption of old age. And in his Journals , he noted, "The site may be the same but the church is probably a more recent edifice though erected on old foundations."[16] This remains the commonly accepted explanation except that the extent of the prerebellion walling has not been precisely determined. There is a double thickness of wall apparent on the south wall, however. Kessell offered the traditional story that the vigas for the roof had been cut too short.[17] Rather than return to the mountains and recut, rehaul, and reseason the timber, the builders added an additional thickness of wall within the old one, thereby rendering the spans of the vigas sufficiently long.

There was no priest in residence in 1881. From 1890 on Zia was served from Jemez, giving testimony to the fact that the importance and the population of the pueblo had both declined, at least in the eyes of the church.

In the 1890s the church was once again in need of repairs. Photographs taken in the early 1920s, just before restoration, show light coming through the holes in the roof. The Committee for the Preservation and Restoration of New Mexico Mission Churches gave priority to Zia because of its historic importance and its perilous condition. Work began in earnest in 1923 under the direction of Odd S. Halseth of the Museum of New Mexico and artist Jozef G. Bakos, a member of Los Cinco Pintores. Although this sounds curious to us today, artists in and around Taos and Santa Fe were quite interested in (a somewhat romanticized version) of New Mexico's past and were informed as to certain historical aspects of the missions as well. Painters such as Carlos Vierra, who executed a series of paintings of the "restored" missions, became de facto authorities on mission architecture and life, although their knowledge of the churches was limited.

The old roof was removed and three vigas were found to require replacement. Interestingly their ends were creosoted and packed with loose stones to foster the increased passage of air and to facilitate evaporation of excess moisture. A new roof was laid over a two-inch concrete slab, and work was completed in December 1923.[18] During the renovation work a fragment of the Victorian Gothic altar screen was removed, and the old reredoses, attributed to the Laguna Santero, were revealed. "Part of these are primitive French and part Spanish, according to Father Bernard of Jemez."[19] Subsequent investigation by E. Boyd changed the attribution. In the 1930s the old images were "restored," somewhat ineffectually, by Zia artist Andrés Galzán.[20]

Today Zia appears the most solid and substantial of all the missions, its low and long profile and ultrathick walls the absolute objectification of permanence. The walls are almost six feet thick in places, with corner buttresses adding to their commodity; these walls could support a much larger and higher building. That the ceiling is a mere twenty or so feet high only adds to the impression of density. There is a shallow porch formed by the balcony that extends between the two towers on the eastern facade and the choir loft within. The clerestory still functions, and the original earthen floor remains. East of the church and forming its entrance court is the campo santo. Filled with a single cross and loose earth, it looks as if it has been filled to maintain a level plane. Here the faithful were buried, while persons of higher rank were buried within the nave of the church. Leslie White noted that the density of bodies already interred required disturbance of the old by the new but that this practice did not seem to bother the Indians to any considerable degree.[21] Unlike Isleta, there is no division along a center line continuing from the nave for distinguishing gender.

From a distance Nuestra Señora de la Asunción glows in the sunlight, particularly in the early morning or the late afternoon. The church has been stuccoed with cement plaster with a decidedly golden rust tint to it, making Zia one of the most beautifully colored and textured of those churches that have undergone the questionably beneficial process of hard plastering. Somehow, in spite of the density of its surface, the unavoidable cracks, and the consequent patching, the building radiates confidence and security and promises to occupy its site for another two or three centuries.


Nuestra Señora de la Asunción
At the turn of the century, only the church facade was whitewashed.
[Adam C. Vroman, Museum of New Mexico]

Nuestra Señora de la Asunción
circa 1917
The figures of the small horses mark the entrance of the otherwise deteriorating structure.
[Museum of New Mexico]


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