- United States
José Inéz Herrera, United States
Height: 30.5 in. Width: 25 in.
General acquisition funds, 1948.22
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2009. All Rights Reserved.
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.
Notice the skeleton’s deep-set eyes, large teeth, elongated torso and limbs, and oversized feet.
The skeleton wears a black woven rebozo, or shawl, that covers the head and is draped around the body.
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.
The handle would have been used to pull the cart in a Holy Week procession.
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?