Into the Light

The story of a curator, a priest, a conservator, and a benefactor who worked miracles together.

Unidentified artist, Mexico, The Visitation, late-eighteenth century. Oil on canvas, 65 × 40 in. Archdiocese of Santa Fe and Our Lady of Belén Catholic Church, Belén, New Mexico. Photograph by Blair Clark.

In 1995, during his first Christmas break as a student at Saint Mary’s Seminary in Houston, Stephen Schultz chose to spend a few days on a retreat, staying in the priests’ quarters at Our Lady of Belén, south of Albuquerque. There, he noticed a series of paintings hanging in the hallway, so old and in such bad condition that they barely revealed their religious content. Unframed, they seemed easily forgettable and widely forgotten. But for Schultz, that encounter began a tumble of coincidences—maybe even miracles. 

“There was grime and soot, holes and rips,” Schultz says. “Mainly I just noticed that they were old. I like old buildings—historical and religious. And I wondered, ‘Who looked at these paintings?’” He wondered if the soot was from prayer candles, and if the grime came from devout hands seeking a celestial connection, or both. Who painted them? Where had they hung? His questions elicited no answers. The church had lost its records, and the paintings had never been seen in its 1973 building—the third haven for the faithful in a parish that dates to 1793. Years later, Schultz would hear tales of the previous church’s demolition and how parishioners pulled bultos and crosses from rubbish heaps. Somehow, someone spared the paintings.

By the time Schultz returned to Belén as parish priest in 2003, the hallway was bare; the paintings were now tucked into a spare room. “What a shame no one can see them,” he recalls thinking. “Even when they were displayed on the walls, the only people who could see them were clergy. I thought it might be wonderful to have them restored.”

He made a guess as to what restoration might cost, and then weighed that price against the growing needs of his struggling congregation. The paintings stayed put. Father Schultz tended to his flock, unaware that gears had begun to turn far beyond him. Only in retrospect would he say the hand of God was well at work.

In the year or so before the June 2014 opening of Painting the Divine: Images of Mary in the New World, Josef Díaz, then a curator at the New Mexico History Museum, began exploring potential artworks within the state’s collections vaults and elsewhere. Robin Farwell Gavin, a fellow Spanish Colonial art historian, mentioned to him that a church in Belén might have a few. They dug up a 1968 pamphlet from the church’s 175th anniversary that mentioned the paintings and the need to have them preserved. Díaz called Schultz to see if they had survived.

Skeptical, Schultz nonetheless invited him to visit, with a warning about the paintings’ poor shape. When Díaz saw them, his heart sank. “They were in horrible condition,” he says. “But what was so perfect was that they fit precisely the theme I was focusing on.” The five largest paintings—about 40 × 65 inches apiece—likely once belonged within a set of twelve depicting the life of Mary. They included The Visitation, The Flight into Egypt, The Nativity, The Circumcision, and The Coronation of Mary. Díaz determined they were by the same ca. 1750s painter working south of Santa Fe and doing so quite skillfully with oil paint on canvas, unusual materials to make it that far up El Camino Real. 

A second set of smaller paintings, probably made by a different artist, appeared less promising to Díaz. In return for the loan of one painting, he told Schultz, museum supporters would finance an expert conservation of it. Schultz saw a long-deferred dream take form and agreed. Díaz chose The Visitation, in part because it was the least damaged. “But I thought it was also the most intimate and, stylistically, the most beautiful.” The painting shows a pregnant Mary greeting her cousin Elizabeth, whose own pregnancy is near term. Joseph and Zacharias flank the women. Schultz says the most important part of the meeting is when Elizabeth’s baby, who will become John the Baptist, leaps in the womb at his recognition of the savior in Mary’s.

“People can relate to that story,” Díaz says, “especially women and mothers. You can see the two are having a conversation. It’s a very warm painting.”

Soon, Díaz packed it up and drove it to Denver. Months passed.

Over the last two decades, Cynthia Lawrence has gained a national reputation as a paintings conservator specializing in Spanish Colonial–era pieces. From her studio in Denver, she’s grown into a go-to person for the Department of Cultural Affairs’ Conservation Lab, as well as institutions in Los Angeles, Denver, and New Orleans. The Visitation wasn’t the worst painting she’d encountered, especially when factoring in the conditions native to adobe churches. All conservators learn to be experts at removing microscopic fly speck (scat), but colonial conservators learn to look for bird and bat guano, too. Consider the life of a mission chapel: dirt from mud walls and floors clings to every surface; flat roofs collapse; rivers flood. 

A mix of art, history, and science, painting conservation can be painstakingly slow. Besides the variety of projects Lawrence usually juggles, she likes to give each bit of work time to rest, and her own eyes time to see new things. Over the following months, Lawrence steadily documented the painting’s problems and began addressing them, often working with a microscope to better see the threads of the canvas. She removed old patches of an unusual fabric, used in place of canvas, which must have been unavailable at the time of that repair. Then she gently humidified, stretched, and weighted the canvas back into shape. Working on spaces as small as an eighth of an inch, she daubed off layers of grime and varnish with a variety of solvents, patched the rips and holes, and with Díaz’s guidance, determined which damaged areas to repaint and how extensively. “Spanish Colonial paintings weren’t purely aesthetic; they were devotional images,” she says. “If somebody had glued silk flowers around the edge, a curator might decide this was important to the history of the piece.”

As the painting took shape, once-muddy colors began to pop—Mary’s blue cape and red dress, the pink folds of Elizabeth’s shawl. Appealingly expressive faces and a previously obscured landscape materialized. “I love the imagery,” Lawrence says. “It was beautifully rendered, and I haven’t seen that image very many times. This was probably my favorite one of the group.”

Eventually, Díaz brought the painting back to Belén for a short stay in advance of the exhibit’s opening. Inside the modern sanctuary, he and Schultz carefully unwrapped it, the priest joking that “it felt like Christmas.” When the dark and damaged painting he had so long ago admired emerged from the packing, Schultz fell silent. He beheld what thousands of earlier parishioners once had, in an era when illiteracy placed a profound importance on art as a teaching tool. “How many people have prayed to her?” he finally asked, softly. “How many couples were married in front of her?”

Díaz treasured the discovery of the paintings, but figured the story ended there. “I thought it was a great gift for our museums to give back to the church. In the back of my mind, I hoped it would encourage them to explore raising money for the others. But conservation is expensive.”

He didn’t know that Schultz had decided on the spot to ask Lawrence for a ballpark bid on protecting all the church’s paintings. She traveled to the church, did a first examination, and delivered a relatively affordable price, with a bit shaved off her normal fees. The cause, she figured, was that special. Encouraged, Schultz put out a call for donors, got a local TV station to do a story, even, had an article in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe’s People of God newspaper. And then he waited, listening to the silence.

Phillip Menicucci grew up at our Lady of Fatima in Albuquerque. Now the owner of a Rio Rancho cabinet-making company, he and his family still accompany his mother to Mass there. One day, he was chatting with Monsignor Bennett Voorhies of Albuquerque’s Our Lady of the Annunciation when he mentioned that he and his wife give money to the Vatican’s Patrons of the Arts program. “Keep your money local,” Voorhies chided. “Our churches have art, too.” Menicucci recalled having heard about some paintings in need of funding, but couldn’t remember much more than that. Rather than put it off, he called the archdiocese and eventually tracked down the newspaper editor, who put him in touch with Schultz.

They scheduled a meeting at which Meniccuci and his wife, Susan, intended to pick one painting for conservation. But then Susan, who was raised Jewish and later converted, found herself drawn to The Circumcision as a representation of her own religious roots. The couple went to a corner of the room, talked it over, came back to Schultz, and told him they would pay for two paintings. Later, they called him and said, “Pick a third.” Then they decided on the fourth. “When we shifted from the Vatican’s restoration to look locally, this project was a no-brainer,” Phillip says. “These paintings have been stuck in an attic, and they’re historic for the church in Belén. Restoring something that’s such a part of their history made sense to me.”

One by one, Lawrence got to work. As she addressed each painting, she began to commune with the unnamed artist. “One of the joys of this profession is you have a sense of how the artist worked. Did they draw it out first? Did they do layers and layers? Did they hide their brushwork or not? Sometimes you see something really special to that artist—a fingerprint, a pentimento, a change. It’s about getting into the mind of the artist. That’s why it’s exciting to do the work and do it well. You honor what the artist did.”

The Menicuccis took their children on a Colorado holiday and one day, instead of sightseeing, spent hours in Lawrence’s studio, watching her work, asking questions, and falling under the same spell. Their $20,000 donation paid to conserve and frame all four paintings. Other donations paid for museum glass, to ensure their longevity. 

Before the paintings began filtering back to Belén, Schultz was reassigned to Albuquerque’s Our Lady of Fatima, and only a curmudgeon would call that a random move. Not only was he now posted at Menicucci’s childhood church, but Father Clement Niggel, the new Belén priest, noticed that the paintings weren’t quite poised to shine in their old home. The sanctuary’s 1970s-era architecture posed a challenge; LeRoy Neiman’s graphic sports prints would look more at home there than classic Spanish Colonial paintings. Returning them to the inaccessible upstairs hallway didn’t feel like a great option, either. So one day, Father Niggel called Schultz and asked him if he’d like to display a few of the paintings at Fatima. Maybe for a good long while.

Last summer, Schultz welcomed four of the paintings. The fifth, The Nativity, could be finished by Christmas 2017, appropriately enough, given that Belén is Spanish for Bethlehem. Schultz and his staff spent an afternoon hanging them in the sanctuary. 

When the head maintenance man saw them, he was stunned. “He said, ‘Father, my parents were married at that church.’ His father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, great-grandfather, and great-grandmother, they worshipped in that church. He has ancestral connections to these. His mother is 92. She can’t wait to come see them. He has grandchildren of his own and can’t wait to bring them. And that’s just one family.” 

The next afternoon, the Menicuccis paid a visit, discovering to their delight that the paintings happened to be hung near where they sit during services. Schultz pointed out newly revealed details in them, but Phillip likely couldn’t see them. Tears filled his eyes. “Don’t cry, Daddy, don’t cry,” his youngest son said, patting his arm. “I didn’t know the Department of Cultural Affairs was doing an exhibit that would involve us,” he said. “And I didn’t think these paintings would be at my childhood parish.”

“It was a confluence of interests,” Schultz says. “I had these paintings and a desire to see them protected. Phil had an interest in making religious art available to public view. But neither of us had the connections. Then, here’s
Josef with the connection and, by chance—or providence—he finds pictures of these images from a church publication fifty years earlier.”

The four paintings stayed up through October. Long-term, Niggel plans to rotate two paintings in and out of Fatima, while showing the other three somewhere inside the Belén church. Both are open during weekday business hours. 

In August, Díaz left the History Museum to become chief curator and associate director at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art in Santa Fe. He hasn’t forgotten the thrill of plucking a relic from obscurity, and still marvels at what he and the History Museum set into motion. “Part of our mission at the Department of Cultural Affairs is to work with these communities, seek out these treasures, and give back to them,” he says. “It also allows them to see us and all that we do. This really was one of the highlights of my career. It was so right and good. It makes me proud to be a curator.” 

Kate Nelson is interim editor of New Mexico Magazine and loves ducking into New Mexico’s mission churches on research outings with curator Josef Díaz.