Preferred Citation: Treib, Marc. Sanctuaries of Spanish New Mexico. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1993 1993.




In a few years' time we will be marking the four hundredth anniversary of the first Spanish settlement in New Mexico, which Don Juan de Oñate founded in July 1598. He had set out from Mexico a year earlier as leader of an expedition to explore and take possession of the northern frontier region, which was largely unknown to Europeans, and to convert its Indian inhabitants to Christianity. Together with a small party of officers he went on ahead of the main party and traveled north up the valley of the Rio Grande until he reached a landscape suited to colonization. Here the group discovered an abandoned Indian village. Oñate decided that this was the place to stop, that in a sense this was the goal of the expedition.

A brief ceremony ensued. Mass was said, and Oñate solemnly declared the village to be the future capital of the Province of New Mexico, of which he was to be governor. He gave the village the name of San Juan de los Caballeros and brought the ceremony to a close by planting a standard especially designed in Mexico for the occasion: a white silk banner adorned with gold and crimson tassles and bearing the images of the Virgin and Saint John the Baptist.

Ironically enough, the capital of the province was soon moved to another place, and Oñate, ostensibly captain general and governor for life, fell into disgrace and was removed from office. Yet the short, largely improvised ritual, witnessed by no more than a scattering of silent Indians, survived (and still survives) as a Hispanic New Mexican tradition.

The custom of celebrating as formally, splendidly, and publicly as possible a significant historical event was already popular in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe. Such celebration was a visible expression of a widely held belief that history was a preordained sequence of trials and triumphs, that time was a stately procession of events leading to a transcendent climax. Although entirely alien to the thinking of the Native American population, these formal rituals took root among the colonists as proof of their Old World civic and religious heritage and as an effective way of heralding their accomplishments.

Other, more elaborate celebrations of the Conquest soon followed, each of them carefully display-


ing a hierarchical social order and each marking, so it was supposed, a further advance toward the creation of a baroque commonwealth in New Mexico. There was a celebration—procession, mass, sermon—when the main body of the expedition finally arrived, a celebration on the completion of the first irrigation ditch, a celebration of the building of the first church, and a three-day celebration on the occasion of the public submission of several local Pueblo leaders to the authority of Spain. This event included a mock battle between the Moors (on horseback) and the Christians (on foot, although equipped with firearms). A sermon concluded the event.

The euphoria of the Conquest soon evaporated, for the Province of New Mexico fell on evil days. Some pueblos rebelled, soldiers mutinied, and many settlers fled back to the safety of Mexico. Disorder and discouragement were the result, and the modern landscape of New Mexico contains few visible reminders of the first two centuries of colonization.

Those few are likely to be the remote rural churches built by the Franciscan missionaries. Church architecture thus provides us with the most reliable evidence of continuity in much of New Mexico's history. Marc Treib's impressive study of a number of those churches, their origin, their construction, and their subsequent modification up to the present will have a strong appeal not only to those interested in architectural history but also to readers wanting to know more about New Mexico's turbulent past. But this book's chief value is Treib's ability—rare among architectural critics—to marry aspects of the everyday world to the world of ideas. The churches he describes in detail are shown to us as both religious symbols and products of a frontier economy and Indian labor; they are interpreted as provincial variations on Mexican baroque but also as influences on Indian converts. Treib's breadth of historical and architectural learning is paradoxically best revealed in his discussion of prosaic details: the limited choice of materials, the limited choice of tools, the restraints imposed by soil and climate. The merging of two very different perspectives gives the reader a stereoscopic view: the church as artifact separated from the Pueblo villages by its European complexity and the church as an integral part of the economy and society of a workaday Spanish colonial landscape.

Most of us are aware that the prehistoric pueblos—at least those in the basin of the Rio Grande—were built out of adobe; and anyone acquainted with the Southwest knows that the Spanish conquerors introduced the use of adobe brick. But very few writers on southwestern architecture have anything to say about the contrast between Pueblo and Spanish construction techniques. It is generally assumed that the transition from one to the other was smooth when in fact it took several generations. Treib provides us with a concise and objective description of the two ways of using adobe, and by simply enumerating the characteristics of each, he alerts the reader to an important fact: building with standardized adobe bricks represented a totally new approach to architecture in the eyes of the Pueblo Indians.

The prehistoric Pueblo adobe building technique was an example of what is known as puddling, which involves taking handfuls of mud (without any binding ingredient such as grass or straw), squeezing them into lumps or balls, and then placing them in rows or courses, one after another up to a convenient height. This produces a very thin wall without any reinforcing frame; moreover, there is little or no preparation of the site—to say nothing of a foundation for the house. As Marc Treib notes, the puddling technique closely resembled the way Pueblo Indian women made pots by using rolled coils of clay; both activities were in fact the exclusive occupation of women.

A puddled wall was rarely sturdy enough to support a second story, and yet second stories on top of puddled houses seem to have been common. How many such structures collapsed is anyone's guess, but there is ample evidence that they did often collapse. It is surprising that no method of reinforcing puddled walls was ever devised, for Pueblo builders frequently showed great skill and ingenuity. All that we can assume is that two-story puddled houses were not thought to be worth much investment in labor and were never considered to be long-lasting. They were easy to build and easy to abandon.

The Spanish invaders brought with them from Mexico (and ultimately from Spain) the knowledge


of how to make strong, uniform, adobe bricks and how to use them in construction. This was much more than rudimentary building material. Ordinances drawn up in Mexico City in 1599 called for the licensing of adobe masons, who were required to know how to build a foundation, how to calculate the weight of a roof in relation to the thickness of walls, how to erect scaffolding, and even how to read plans. Whether these regulations were ever enforced in New Mexico is very doubtful, but their memory persisted among the priests, soldiers, and settlers, and the prototypal building they sought to reproduce amid the New Mexican landscape was one with strong foundations, sturdy walls supporting heavy roof beams, and precautions against settling, collapsing, and eroding.

To the Indians who did the heavy work, much of the building activity must have been bewildering: the use of plumb lines and measuring rods and the frequent consulting of a plan or drawing. But one thing must have been obvious to them all: that the design of the church and all the work done on it were intended to achieve a single purpose—the creation and protection of a number of interior spaces. This meant building a structure so strong, so massive, and so firmly attached to its site that it could resist the ravages of time and weather and could last for many generations.

The use of adobe bricks and the use of puddling are so totally unlike in every respect that there seems no point in trying to compare the two. Yet the average Pueblo Indian of the colonial period probably had no trouble seeing the essential difference: the house of adobe bricks was meant to be the most important space, or collection of spaces, in the daily existence of its occupants, a substitute for life outdoors; whereas the house of puddled mud was simply a useful adjunct designed to hold things or serve as a part-time shelter. The church was a particularly fearsome example of adobe brick architecture not only because it was monstrous in size and permanent but also because people were compelled to enter its labyrinthine rooms at regular intervals and for a prescribed length of time.

Once entrapped in the church, the outsider became a helpless participant in an elaborate, highly organized pageant progressing down the center of the nave to the altar. The otherworldly atmosphere of the interior was enriched by darkness, music, incense, and the sombre costumes of the officiating priest. To the European members of the congregation—priests, soldiers, and settlers—this was not only a familiar scene but also a reminder of another well-established public event, the baroque outdoor celebration of earlier and happier times. Although far smaller, far less splendid, and far less varied in composition, the New World church pageant nevertheless retained the basic elements of its origin: symbols, hierarchy, and a slow procession building to a dramatic climax at the altar. Both kinds of ceremony illustrated the Western concept of the interaction of time and space; progress, movement in either dimension, inevitably led to a wished-for goal.

How did the Indian participant respond? The bells, the measured tread of the processioners, the rhythmic order of the service itself, and the reminders of the church calendar culminating in the observance of Easter all produced an ever-increasing expectation of a final moment. But this was not the time by which Indians lived: theirs was the cyclical, neverending recurrence of cosmic events; the movement of heavenly bodies; the sequence of seasons; the dance of night and day; the ordering of the outdoor world, not of the world of dark interiors. To escape from the enclosed spaces of the church was to escape from the tyranny of an incomprehensible architecture and to return to traditional ways of thinking.

In an essay on Hopi architecture, Benjamin Lee Whorf suggested that the Hopi (and presumably other Pueblo societies) had an ambivalent attitude toward all interior, three-dimensional spaces. He wrote that although the Hopi had terms for many architectural structures, they had no term for the room. "Hollow spaces like room, chamber, hall are not really named as objects but rather as locations; i.e., positions of other things are specified so as to show their location in such hollow spaces." This tendency to perceive the room or any other interior space (such as the nave of the church) simply as a container with no inherent quality or function of its own was consistent with the use of the flimsy, essentially short-lived puddled dwelling. Its few contents and its intermittent functions indicated


all the Pueblo required of architecture: shelter and necessary containment.

An unusual element in this study of missionary churches is Treib's account of the decay that occurred among many of them when their missionary role was reduced or eliminated. It was then that they acquired an archaeological appeal, and Treib's discussion of preservation and restoration policies clarifies the dangers residing in a too-strict attempt to restore the churches to something like their original condition. For much of the "incorrect" or inaccurate restoration in the nineteenth century was the work of the Pueblo Indians themselves and indicated how their attitudes toward architectural spaces had changed. More than a century ago Victor Mindeleff, in his study of Pueblo architecture, noted how the Zuñi Indians had attempted to patch up their decaying churches by using adobe but with little understanding of the nature of adobe bricks. "When molded adobe bricks have been used by the Zuni, in house dwelling," he wrote, "they have been made from the raw material just as it was taken from the fields. As a result these bricks have none of the durability of the Spanish work." He added that "walls in Zuni were only as thick as necessary . . . evidently modelled directly after the walls of stone masonry which had already been pushed to the limit of thinness." It was as if the nineteenth-century Pueblo builders were reverting to the short-lived construction of pre-Conquest times.

If this neglect of the church buildings had any deeper significance, it was that the Pueblo people were turning away from a built environment in which they had never felt at home. It was then that the ceremonies they most cherished—the traditional dances, endlessly repetitive and without climax either in time or on the surface of the plaza—were once again freely honored and held outdoors.

Those who still believe in the persistence of a baroque heritage among the Hispanic population of New Mexico can take heart in the survival of many church traditions. The cultural, as distinguished from the doctrinal, influence of the Catholic church is particularly strong in northern, predominantly rural counties. Despite a dwindling population, increasing poverty, and an omnipresent Anglo culture, there are still villages that look upon the church and its priest as defenders of a formal Spanish way of life. It is in the church that they expect to hear correct Spanish and to observe correct behavior and dress. It is in the church that they celebrate marriages and baptisms and gather to mourn a death. There are few other occasions for a display of formality and family ties. But it is on the day (or the eve) of the local patron saints that something like the ceremonial procession reappears. The church bell rings, bonfires are set at intervals around the outside of the church, and the image of the saint heads the procession as the congregation walks slowly three times around the church, singing as it goes. The flames light up the rough adobe walls and earnest faces. All the elements of celebration are present, all the symbols of order, reverence, and an undying love for this particular time, this particular place.



Preferred Citation: Treib, Marc. Sanctuaries of Spanish New Mexico. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1993 1993.