Today we visited the Church of San Francisco de Asis in Ranchos de Taos, just a few miles south of downtown Taos. Built probably between 1813 and 1815, it’s one of New Mexico’s oldest churches. It is also considered to be one of the finest examples of Spanish Franciscan architecture. Georgia O’Keeffe, among many others, painted it. It is indeed a beautiful structure, with huge buttresses (one is made of 10,000 adobe bricks held together by mud) that give it a rounded, grounded aspect. It’s earthy, organic, and soaring — all at one time. And, almost 200 years after its construction, this is still an operating church, with a congregation.
No photographs are allowed inside the church, but take my word for it — it’s gorgeous. There are two retables, decorated wood frames that enclose paintings of saints or special symbols. The main one is said to have been brought from Spain, but the one that graces the north side of the cross-shaped building is perhaps more fascinating. It was painted by a folk artist who was well known in the early 1800s, Molleno, and restored recently by two Santa Fe artists, Luis Tapia and Fred Vigil. Beside the retable is a rather gruesome sculptural rendering of Christ on the cross, with lots of blood and gore, also by Molleno. Galina, the art historian, pronounced it a very fine artwork.
Outside, in the courtyard, is this statue of St. Francis. I was struck by his pensive expression and the position of his hands. Maybe he is waiting for a sparrow to alight, but it sure looks to me as if he’s looking at his cellphone and saying, “I don’t recognize that number.”
Inside the church office is a curiosity that we couldn’t resist, the painting of “The Shadow of the Cross.” If you pay $3.00 to view a 15-minute historical slide/tape show, you also get to view the “mystery painting,” an 1896 work on canvas by French-Canadian artist Henri Ault. It’s a life-size painting; Galina regarded this one as “not very good.” (On top of that, this is my photo of a postcard, so it’s also a poor representation of the original.)
But this painting is famous because of what happens to it when the lights are turned off. In light, the picture shows a barefoot Christ standing on the edge of the Sea of Galilee. In darkness, the background begins to glow and the silhouetted figure appears. Then, as your eyes get accustomed to the darkness, a ghostly cross shape appears behind the figure’s shoulder on the right side of the painting. The painting was exhibited worldwide in the early part of the last century, including at the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis. Then a wealthy parishioner bought it and donated it to the church. According to a brochure you can buy (for one more dollar), “It was painted before radium was discovered and when tested with Geiger counters, the results have been negative. No luminous paint has been developed that does not oxidize with time, yet this painting has continued to be luminous for a hundred years.” Go figure; we decided to just accept it as miraculous.