Sculptor. The last of the notable pre-revival santeros, Ortega was perhaps the most prolific. But his figures, often created from scrap mill board and cheap calico rags, upon which he applied poorly prepared gesso, have disintegrated more rapidly than those of older santeros. Most of his work was done in the remote villages near Mora, his home, at a time whe the clergy was attempting to replace santos with mass-produced plaster statues. In spite of this, Ortega continued to produce traditional images for Penitente moradas and for church, chapel, and private use. His crude carving of hands and feet contrasts with the sensitive, individual touch he gave facial features. In 1907, after the death of his wife, he moved to Raton and ceased making santeros.
Denver Art Museum. Santos of the Southwest, pp. 36–42. Denver: Denver Art Museum, 1970.
Boyd. Popular Arts of Spanish New Mexico, pp. 416–29.
Charles Eldredge, Julie Schimmel, and William H. Truettner Art in New Mexico, 1900–1945: Paths to Taos and Santa Fe (Washington, DC: National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1986)
José Benito Ortega, the last of the late 19th-century santeros (religious image-makers), traveled from the 1870s to the early 1900s throughout northern New Mexico making santos (religious images) for small chapels, meeting houses, village homes, and for Penitentes (members of a religious brotherhood). He and other santeros were true itinerant artists at a time when the Catholic Church was attempting to replace the santos with mass-produced plaster statues. By the early 1900s, the old santo-making tradition had died out. Its revival began in the 1920s in Santa Fe when the production of relatively small unpainted pieces for the tourist market was encouraged by Anglo artists and others interested in Hispanic culture. In recent years a new generation of santeros has begun to make polychromed santos comparable in size to the older pieces but largely destined now for museums rather than churches.
In keeping with the prerevival santero tradition, Ortega’s Our Father Jesus of Nazareth[SAAM, 1986.65.258] is relatively large. The figure stands enclosed up to the waist within three boards nailed to the base. Parchment covers the side boards and the figure from waist to mid thigh, forming a short skirt. This supporting “cage,” which kept the figure from falling when it was carried in Holy Week processions, would not normally be seen under the full garment and cloak in which it was usually dressed. The wrists are tied with a leather strap. The long, narrow head, with prominent nose and outlined eyes, is typical of Ortega’s work.
The overall effect of this stylized representation of the Christ figure is very powerful. The suffering of Christ is conveyed by the pose of the figure, the slight lowering of the head, the bound hands, and the graphic representation of the bleeding over every part of the body.
Hispanic-American Art (brochure, Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art)
José Benito Ortega was known for his simple religious figures created out of scraps of wood. Families and communities used his sculptures for worship in their homes or churches, and often carried them in processions. (Lynda Hartigan, Made with Passion, 1990)