José Benito Ortega


Ortega was a prolific, itinerant santero, or carver and painter of santos (figures of saints), whose work represents the last flowering of the classical tradition of saint figuremaking in northern New Mexico. Traveling on foot from his home in La Cueva to the villages east of Santa Fe in Mora, San Miguel, and Colfax Counties, he created sculptural images (bultos) of popular Roman Catholic saints and other holy personages for use in the devotional practices of the Hispanic households of the region. Healso carved images for use in moradas, the local chapters or meeting houses of the Catholic Brotherhood of Our Father Jesus Nazarene, more commonly known as penitentes. Providing mutual assistance and support for its members, the brotherhood became known for its public acts of penitence during Holy Week in imitation of the Passion of Christ.In contrast to his household saints, which generally stand no higher than two feet, Ortega’s penitente sculptures are imposing figures, standing as tall as five feet, andmost often depict the Crucified Christ. William Wroth, the author of several authoritative studies of the santos of New Mexico, has observed that the artist’s treatmentof the features of his figures is “virtually the same for every piece he made…. The eyes protrude and stare, the nose is quite large and slightly turned up, the chin isclearly defined, often slightly pointed.” Unlike earlier santeros, Ortega often used excessive amounts of gesso in the modeling of features, rather than carving them.It is not clear whether Ortega worked alone, with family members, or maintained a taller, or workshop. Although a nephew asserted that the artist did not have ahelper, Wroth suggests the possibility of a workshop under Ortega’s direction. Two related groups of bultos from the Mora area have been identified that share manyof the stylistic characteristics of Ortega’s work, but appear to have been made by other carvers.In 1907, after his wife’s death, Ortega left his home in La Cueva to take up residence with his children in Mora, New Mexico. Although he lived for another 34years, he did not carve any more bultos.