Santa Ludgarda: An Old New Mexican Retablo Shows Us a New Subject
by Thomas J. Steele, S.J.
Some months ago, Larry and Alyce Frank of Arroyo Hondo acquired a panel painting by Molleno, the prolific New Mexican santero (painter and carver of santos) who worked in the first half of the nineteenth century. In Molleno's spare and notational late style, this retablo shows Christ on the cross reaching his right hand down to embrace a nondescript figure clad in an ankle-length black gown with a black hood. This figure, who looks slightly more female than male, levitates in the air and is marked on hands and lower legs with various bloodstains.
Baffled, the Franks turned to me for some help in identifying this new subject, but I could only say that the figure ought to be the stigmatic San Francisco de Asís, to whom Christ Crucified appeared in the manner shown. The black garment, another friend suggested, might be the result of indigo oxidizing, as it does occasionally, but the normal blue Franciscan robe would still not explain away the beardless Francis. Someone else suggested to Mr. Frank that the figure might be meant to be the Sorrowful Mother at the foot of the cross, but I could find no trace of any such variant of the Dolores image.
Then fortunately I happened to meet Dr. Yvonne Lange in the library of the International Folk Art, a unit of the Museum of New Mexico. Dr. Lange, Director Emerita of MOIFA, is an expert on religious iconography in general and on the impact of prints on Spanish Colonial devotional representations in particular.1 I described the piece and offered for review the guesses that had already been made, and Dr. Lange immediately volunteered that the retablo certainly depicted Santa Lutgarda - a saint of whom I had never heard.
Lutgarda (the name is variously spelled) was formerly much better known than she is today; there was, for instance, a seventeenth-century Spanish translation of her Latin hagiography, written by her former spiritual director the Dominican Thomas of Cantimpré. The saint was born in 1182 of a mother from the petty nobility and a bourgeois father. At age twelve, she entered the convent of the "Black Benedictines" near Brussels more as a student than as a novice. Then one day The Man of Sorrows appeared to her when she was talking to a young man through the visitors' grille. Christ showed her the wound in his side made when the Roman soldier's spear struck into his heart, asked her for her love, and promised her his own. She immediately sent her admirer away and began to dedicate herself to fervent prayer.2
As her spiritual life grew, so did the phenomena associated with it such as the levitation which the Molleno panel depicts. Soon she transferred from her lax Benedictine convent to the much more strict and rewarding Cistercian (Trappist) life, and there she eventually advanced to a mystical marriage with Christ the Bridegroom of the human soul, uniting her will permanently with the divine will. The rupture of a vein in her side assured her that she received during life the equivalent of the Roman martyr Saint Agnes' death being marked with the brand marks of the crucified Lord, the stigmata; and thereafter she often shared in Jesus' bloody sweat in the Garden of Gethsemane. Shortly after receiving the stigmatic wound in the side, she experienced the event that Molleno's New Mexican retablo depicts. The Man of Sorrows appeared to her hanging on the cross, loosened his right arm from its cruel nail, embraced her, drew her mouth to the wound in his side, and bade her sip a drop of his precious blood, sharing his very life with her so that what was his by divine nature became hers by participation, by love, by grace. For the final eleven years of her life she was blind in body though increasingly enlightened in spirit until she died in 1246. 3
Lutgarda exemplified a new, less liturgical, more individualistic spirituality that arose when the cloisters began to echo the growth of urban prosperity. Lutgarda continued a tradition that began in the eleventh century and matured with Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), who increasingly turned Christians' attention to the mutable humanity of Christ in his birth and childhood and his passion and death. Dominic Guzmán (1170-1221) and Francis of Assisi (1181-1221) were Lutgarda's contemporaries. Iberian saints in the same tradition of mystical prayer were Ignatius Loyola, Teresa of Ávila, and John of the Cross. The tradition concluded with the seventeenth-century French devotion to the Sacred Heart, which focused upon the reserved Eucharist detached from the liturgy of the Eucharist. 4
Many eminent scholars have summarized Lutgarda's iconography. Louis Réau notes her likeness to Francis of Assisi, the Crucified Christ embracing the kneeling nun, drawing her mouth to taste of the bleeding wound in his side, and exchanging his heart for hers to betoken their mystical marriage. Maurits de Meyer shows a fraktur style drawing of Lutgarda with her lips to Christ's spear-wound. Antonino Buttita reprints a reverse-glass painting from Sicily that shows the Man of Sorrows reaching toward the kneeling nun, whom an inscription identifies as "Patron of Childbirth." The Catalán Spaniard Ferrando Roig reproduces a woodcut with Lutgarda kneeling with a book at her feet before a crucifix from which a gout of blood flies to her lips, and Goya depicted Santa Lutgarda in one of his four painting for the Cistercian convent church of Santa Ana y San Joachín in Valladolid. In The Art of Private Devotion, Gloria Fraser Giffords presents a nineteenth-century Mexican folk oil-on-tin image of Lutgarda and Kurt Stephen of McAllen, Texas, has collected three Lutgarda láminas, one of which appears here as an illustration.5
Some years ago, the late Fray Angélico Chávez told me that around 1800 annual devotional books began to list the saints venerated on each day of the year and that to supplement the quite limited number of New Mexican Hispanic surnames for a burgeoning population, many new given names shortly started appearing in the baptismal registers. Perhaps like Santa Dulubina, a Molleno subject from his earlier years, some depiction of Santa Lutgarda made her way to New Mexico and found a devotional context ready to receive her.6
So at any rate, we can conclude that Dr. Yvonne Lange was right and that the mystery of the Molleno board is solved.
1. Yvonne Lange, "The Impact of European Prints on the Devotional Tin Paintings of Mexico: A Transferral Hypothesis," in Gloria Fraser Giffords, The Art of Private Devotion: Retablo Painting in Mexico (Fort Worth: Intercultura, 1991), pp. 64-72.
2. Thomas Merton, What Are These Wounds? (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company, 1950), pp. vii, 6. I have identified the advocation of Christ on the cross as the Man of Sorrows, a devotional rather than a historical image, because he is shown alive (moving, speaking, with open eyes) and yet already with the spear-wound in his side (inflicted on him after his death); see Gertrud Schiller, The Iconography of Christian Art (Greenwich: New York Graphics, 1972), 2:198.
3. Merton, pp. vii, 10, 13-14, 17-18, 124-28, 144, and 165; on the status of stigmata as miraculous phenomena, see Augustin François Poulin, The Graces of Interior Prayer (Saint Louis: B. Herder, 1950), pp. 554-58. Alban Butler et al., The Lives of the Saints (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1956), 2:557-58, state that Lutgarda had a friend and mentor named Christine the Astonishing.
4. Merton, pp. viii, 23, and 32. Saint Gertrude the Great has the same ambiguous provenance as Lutgarda in also being a Benedictine nun who became a Trappistine.
5. Louis Reau, Iconographie de l'Art Chrétien (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1958), 3:2:840-41; Maurits de Meyer, Imagerie Populaire ds Pays-Bas (Milan: Electa, 1970), pl. 45; Antonino Buttitta, La Pittura su Vetro in Sicilia (Palermo: Sellerio, 1972), pl. 5; Juan Ferrando Roig, Iconografía de los Santos (Barcelona: Ediciones Omega, 1950), pp. 177-78; José Guidol, Goya, 1746-1828 (Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa, 1980), 1:324; Gloria Fraser Giffords and Yvonne Lange, The Art of Private Devotion (Fort Worth: Intercultrua, 1991), p. 116.
I wonder if Giffords' illustration 63 might show in the right background not a tabernacle but a totally-out-of-perspective escritoire with several books standing on its upper shelf, a quill pen and an inkwell sitting on the lower shelf, and book lying on the writing surface to the left.
6. José E. Espinosa, "Little Dutch Girl Far from Home," El Palacio 61 (1954), 70-73; my thanks to Lawrence Frank for suggesting the Lydwina-Lutgarda parallel.
Jesuit Father Tom Steele is the author of Santos and Saints (now in its 3rd edition from Ancient City Press). Father Steele is the author of numerous other articles and books on the art and culture of New Mexico.
First published in Tradicion Revista, Volume 1, No. 3, Fall 1996.
Copyright 1996. May not be reproduced in any form without written permission.