A few months ago, Gustavo Goler, a third-generation saint-maker (santero) lifted a carved Jesus Christ to its home in the sunny oratory of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in rural New Mexico. The 35-pound Cristo rested easily in Goler’s strong hands—the same hands that had carved the image in 1999, and then recently restored it at the request of the Benedictine monks. The monks’ faces shone almost as brightly as the sun as they welcomed home their cherished Cristo, but no one’s face was brighter than Goler’s as he climbed down the ladder.
Goler’s journey to this moment began during childhood hours playing and drawing in his family’s Latin American art conservation studios in Santa Fe, New Mexico. At age thirteen, he began carving under the guidance of an uncle, fascinated by the three-dimensional carving of fingers and attributes for various saints. During high school, Goler copied older santos as a way of learning. As his skills progressed, the projects increased in complexity. Goler’s first complete, original carving was a crucifix, a doubly demanding project due to its spiritual intensity and the artistry required to closely follow human anatomy.
Within a few short years he became known for his carving of crucifixes. For Goler, the making of sacred art is work that originates in a deep spiritual adherence to the art’s specific devotional purpose. A santero makes art in order to draw people into prayer and contemplation of the Divine. This upward movement of prayer by the pilgrim or viewer continues the upward creative movement toward God that is begun by the santero while he creates the image.
Goler points out that before the railroad’s arrival in New Mexico in the 1850s the tradition of making devotional art was firmly ensconced among the people. The great distance from the resources in major cities had convinced the Spanish New Mexicans to create sacred images from easily obtainable materials, such as wood. There was no thought of making sacred art to sell.
Goler’s emotional and spiritual connection with each crucifix he made during these early years eventually led him to pause his carving of crucifixes. He needed a break “because the crucifixes mean so much to me.” It is easily comprehensible how translating Christ’s pain, both physical and mental, would exhaust an artist carving that anguish into wood.
As Goler’s professional accomplishments as a santero grew, he decided to move to the quiet beauty of Taos, New Mexico as part of a conscious decision to become a conservator. He says, “I never wanted to be an artist because I had seen the artists in and out of my family’s studio for years. Every one of them had a side job, another way of earning money. But the saints (santos) found me.” Goler worked for 20 years for a major collector where he studied devotional art and artistic expression through the centuries in multiple countries in Europe and the New World. He studied all aspects of color, attributes, postures, and materials for santos because he “wanted to be smart and know everything about saint-making.”
Goler’s history with the Cristo at the monastery began over 30 years ago when another smaller crucifix made in the 1950-60s era held the primary position in the oratory. Goler had been a visitor to the monastery, and prayed beneath its gaze. When the monastery sold this first Cristo, the terms of the sale specified that a New Mexican artist must be commissioned to make the replacement. The monastery commissioned Goler. For a few months, the sold crucifix resided in Golder’s studio for measurements and contemplation. Goler then carved his Cristo, and it was installed in 1999.
The first and most compelling aspect of the monastery’s Cristo is the treatment of the bloody wounds of Christ. (See photo.) The red rivulets flow downward almost everywhere on the Savior’s body, heightened by the paleness of His body and the alertness of His gaze. This Christ demands the viewer see His suffering with unflinching eyes, and this Christ stares back with equally unflinching eyes. Christ’s mouth hangs open with the haunting silence of unspoken words. According to Brother Chrysostom, guestmaster at the monastery, this striking Cristo is the foremost visual souvenir that impresses itself into the memories of visitors to Chama Canyon’s monastery set in its own location of stunning physical beauty. Visitors who prayed with this Cristo even once often remark upon that experience in comments to the brothers decades later.
The tradition of depicting Christ’s wounds originates in Europe, although His wounds aren’t always bloody, according to Goler. “The tradition of representing the wounds much more graphically came from Spain. Then it arrived in South American, Central America, and Mexico.” A side view (see photo) of Goler’s Cristo at the monastery reveals the upper and middle back of Christ flayed and bloody after the scourging. Part of Goler’s tradition as a New Mexican artist derives from the Penitentes, lay groups of Spanish-American men originating in the early nineteenth century following Mexico’s independence from Spain. These groups of men, often the best educated and most respected men in the small towns of northern and central New Mexico and southern Colorado, devoted themselves to prayer, works of charity and rituals in honor of the Passion. Their ardent and humble devotion was intrinsic to the Catholic identity of their rural communities.
After 28 years of direct sunlight through the chapel’s four large, clear-glass upper windows, the Cristo needed cleaning and restoration. The monks entrusted their beloved Cristo to Goler’s skilled hands. Coincidentally, when Goler’s carved Christ was in his studio, the original crucifix whose sale made Goler’s commissioning for a Cristo possible, was also was there for its own, separate restoration. A reunion, of sorts, within the large white rooms of Goler’s studio under the crystal blue New Mexico skies. A coincidence that only an artist would notice, but one that reinforced the transcendent connection uniting God’s mysterious presence and man’s incarnational existence.
The fact that the monastery’s Cristo is used purely for devotion and prayer is important to Goler. For Goler, who only works on devotional art, the religious and sacred purposes of santos is always foremost. Does Goler consider himself a Catholic artist? “I am a Catholic artist. I attend church and celebrate the feast days and Penitente practices. If you narrow it down, I create Catholic saints. Other people may not be attached to the word ‘Catholic,’ and may think of me as a devotional artist—perhaps because some of my contemporary work interjects a little bit of humor.”
Now, when the brothers file into the chapel for Vigils at 4:00 a.m. each day in darkness, the Cristo awaits them. His pale body hangs as a stark reminder of the sacrifice and love united in Christ’s salvific mission on earth. As their voices chant the first verse of each day from Psalm 50, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall sing your praise,” the Cristo hangs to the right of the altar, back in its place of honor. In explaining the unique existence of contemplative monks in today’s frenetic society, the monastery states, “These men have been called to God alone in joyous solitude and silence, in constant prayer and willing penance,” Gustavo Goler has made it possible, through his vocation as a santero, for Christ to reach out and touch their souls and the souls of all visitors.
Sarah Cortez is a poet and the president and founder of Catholic LIterary Arts. With thirteen books to her name, she is a freelance writer and editor based in Houston, Texas. In January of 2020, Catholic Arts Today published this interview with Sarah by Charlotte Allen: “Sarah Cortez: Cop, Poet, Catholic”.