Death Cart

1890-1910

Object

Artist

Jose Inez Herrera, American

Locale

  • El Rito, NM
  • New Mexico

Object Info

Object: bulto
Currently on view
Object ID: 28F698FE-EB02-43E5-BA40-7BCBC1E34883

Medium/Technique

Carved cottonwood or pine with gesso, paint, feathers, silk and hair.

Credit

General acquisition funds

About

About the Artist

Not much is known about artist José Inéz Herrera. He worked in El Rito, New Mexico, from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. He is known as either El Rito Santero or Death Cart Santero. Santeros, artists who created holy images, learned from local Pueblo Indians how to make paints from plants and minerals in the area. They combined these regional paints with imported oil paints from Mexico to create distinctive sculptures and paintings for Catholic New Mexican churches, homes, and worship spaces. This sculpture is made of wood, gesso (primer paint), silk, and animal hair. The skeletal figure represents a long religious tradition within the Catholic Church. Images of Death were associated with Holy Week rituals in Spain, Italy, Mexico, and New Mexico. In Catholic tradition, Holy Week is the week before Easter, the day Jesus rose from the dead.

What Inspired It

The image of Death is an image from the Catholic tradition of the Passion of Christ. The Passion story includes all of the events leading up to the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, as well as the Crucifixion itself. The skeletal figure in this cart represents Death. The artist exaggerated different parts of the figure to create a sense of drama. He gave the skeleton long, thin arms and legs and carved out deep-set, hollow eyes. The skeleton’s neck and torso are also very long, and its chin comes to a dramatic point. The large crooked teeth have been arranged into what looks like a smile.

The Saturday before Easter, carts like this one would have been pulled in a procession, symbolizing the brief period of Death’s triumph on Earth before Christ rose from the dead, escaping Death’s clutches. Sometimes a Death Cart would follow Christ on the road to Crucifixion, haunting the last stages of the Passion. During the rest of the year, these figures were used as a reminder of the inevitability of death.

In New Mexican imagery, death figures are often dressed in women’s clothing. The fact that the Spanish word muerte, or death, is feminine may account for the predominantly female character in New Mexico. Death figures are sometimes nicknamed “Doña Sebastiana” in New Mexico. The origins of this folk tradition are unknown but probably stem from a feminization of Saint Sebastian, a Christian saint who was said to have been killed by arrows.

Physical Characteristics
Physical Characteristics

Notice the skeleton’s deep-set eyes, large teeth, elongated torso and limbs, and oversized feet.

Shawl
Shawl

The skeleton wears a black woven rebozo, or shawl, that covers the head and is draped around the body.

Bow and Arrow
Bow and Arrow

In New Mexico, most death figures wield a bow and arrow. Images of death from other parts of the world carry a scythe, an ax, or a hatchet.

Handle
Handle

The handle would have been used to pull the cart in a Holy Week procession.

Teaching Resources

Quick Classroom Ideas

  • The skeleton on the death cart is abstracted in several ways – for example, the simplified ribs and the long neck. Choose a subject to draw and decide how you would change it to be less realistic. What portions of your artwork did you decide to change? How did you change it? Why did you choose these parts to be less realistic?
  • This artwork is made to be pulled in a parade and therefore has wheels and a handle. What type of artwork could you make that is meant to be moved around rather than just placed somewhere to be admired? How would you make it portable? Would you make this artwork part of an event or would you create an event based on your artwork?
  • While these types of sculptures have been made in other parts of the world, this one and others like it have characteristics that make them specific to New Mexico, including the materials used and its artistic style (the type of wood and fabric, the abstracted style of the skeleton, the type of cart). What can you think of that might be considered characteristic of where you live? Clothes? Food? Buildings? What is it about these things that represent the area where you live?
  • Processions, Parades, and Cultural Celebrations
    Lesson Plan

    Processions, Parades, and Cultural Celebrations

    Secondary (grades 6-12)
    One 50 minute lesson

    Students will critically examine and discuss the Death Cart, then compare and contrast ways various cultures use objects of art in processions, parades, and cultural celebrations.

    More
  • Same Inspiration, Different Story
    Lesson Plan

    Same Inspiration, Different Story

    Elementary (grades K-5)
    One 50 minute lesson

    Students will learn about key elements in a story and use their powers of observation and imagination to write a story inspired by the Death Cart.

    More
  • Persuasive Exaggeration
    Lesson Plan

    Persuasive Exaggeration

    Secondary (grades 6-12)
    One 50 minute lesson

    Students will observe the image of the Death Cart, paying particular attention to the artist’s use of exaggerated features. Students will take cues from the artist and write a persuasive letter using exaggeration or hyperbole to make a point.

    More
  • Processions, Parades, and Cultural Celebrations
    Lesson Plan

    Processions, Parades, and Cultural Celebrations

    Secondary (grades 6-12)
    One 50 minute lesson

    Students will critically examine and discuss the Death Cart, then compare and contrast ways various cultures use objects of art in processions, parades, and cultural celebrations.

    More
  • Same Inspiration, Different Story
    Lesson Plan

    Same Inspiration, Different Story

    Elementary (grades K-5)
    One 50 minute lesson

    Students will learn about key elements in a story and use their powers of observation and imagination to write a story inspired by the Death Cart.

    More
  • Persuasive Exaggeration
    Lesson Plan

    Persuasive Exaggeration

    Secondary (grades 6-12)
    One 50 minute lesson

    Students will observe the image of the Death Cart, paying particular attention to the artist’s use of exaggerated features. Students will take cues from the artist and write a persuasive letter using exaggeration or hyperbole to make a point.

    More
  • If You Give a Man a Horse
    Lesson Plan

    If You Give a Man a Horse

    Early childhood (ages 3-5)
    One 25 minute lesson

    Students will read the book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff, explore Charles Deas’ painting Long Jakes, and exercise their imaginations to create their own cause-and-effect story.

    More
  • Guess Who? And What Happens Next?
    Lesson Plan

    Guess Who? And What Happens Next?

    Early childhood (ages 3-5)
    One 30 minute lesson

    Students will take turns using language, physical gestures, and minor props to depict a person they have chosen from Garry Winogrand’s Los Angeles. The class will guess who is being depicted and then create a story about what happens next.

    More

This video talks about the santero tradition in New Mexico and its modern reinterpretation.

Funding for object education resources provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.

The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.