Sometimes a place draws a person in. Perhaps an essence of calm seems to welcome you from beyond exterior doors and beckons you farther into an interior chamber. That’s the feeling I remember about the old adobe mission church in the Barrio de Analco district of Santa Fe that is considered the oldest church in the continental United States. It’s been a couple of years since that visit, but I remember with affection and mystery that mud-bricked sacred dwelling that intrigued me with wonder as I approached it from the sidewalk…
A candle in the old window…
A bird under the old bell in the tower…
A cross rising up into the blue sky…
The San Miguel Chapel dates back to the early 1600s and was originally built by the Tlaxcalan Indians from Mexico who traveled with Spanish missionaries to the newly founded settlement of Santa Fe in the Territory of New Mexico. The church stands on the original site despite being partially destroyed and rebuilt during years of robust political and social unrest.
Every potter knows the energy of earth and water. Throw a little dried grass into the clay and pack it into a frame to mold the brick contours, and you’re on your way to one of the oldest innovations in history. I have to believe more than one prayer or two went into that original adobe and maybe that’s why I sensed something deeply organic and spiritual within the five-foot-thick church walls.
I paused when I entered the small chapel. The strong scents of ancient soil and seasoned wood wafted around me. It’s uncanny how a nose senses things before the eyes can see. I looked up to the ceiling where a row of hand-carved wooden beams supported the tiny choir loft. What was striking about those old wooden beams was the intricacy of the engravings. Beauty was bestowed into the tree’s wood above my head. I wondered what hands skillfully crafted each divot, swirl, notch, and row into this gorgeous and structural work of art.
My gaze wandered back to the floor where the famed San Miguel bell set near a side entrance. A history of legends and myths abound in its 1356 origin.
Beyond the bell extends a handful of humble, hand-hewn pews nested on the floor within the chapel. I sensed a reverence in those hallowed rows. Even now, I wonder what stories grace the spots where souls knelt in prayer.
In front of the pews rests the altar. Behind the altar ascends a screen called a reredos framed in columns of spiral-carved wood. Tier-like shelves on the reredos cradle religious paintings and statues of angels and saints in the alcoves. All eyes would have been focused there at the altar in front of the reredos when the priest prayed the Mass.
And on the surrounding walls of the interior chapel hangs a crucifix, many paintings, 14 Stations of the Cross plaques, a buffalo hide and a deer hide painting.
You never really know what piece of art may take your breath away at any given time. But it was that one large buffalo hide painting of Christ’s Passion on the wall that took my breath away with a sweeping emotional response.
First off, I wondered who it was that slayed the buffalo. Perhaps one of the indigenous Pueblo Indians? Or, was it someone else? And what hands tanned the hide in preparation for the paint? Oral history depicts the artist as a friar in the 1630s. The painting is hued in rich blue, mahogany, yellow, and tan colors faded with age. For centuries, the hide has hung exposed to the air without any protective encasement. And yet, there is a raw elegance about its beautiful simplicity and symbolic content.
In celebration of the holiest week in the Christian tradition, it’s a breath of peace to recall this place of refuge, this place of worship in honor of the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection. In our often chaotic, clamorous, and aching world, we need our sacred spaces to simply connect with God and to restore our souls. Blessed be the spaces that human hands have wrought and the wild spaces of God’s natural world that connect us with the Almighty.
Blessings to all this Easter. Thanks for stopping by. ♥