The Spanish Mission Reredos of San Miguel Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico

San Miguel Chapel (Misión de San Miguel) is Spanish mission church that dates back to the early 1600's, being the oldest known church in the continental USA.  While the chapel is generally of interest, it is the reredos which is of particular interest today, being another example of the liturgical art of the Spanish missions in the Americas.

As this chapel remains in use even to this day, its configuration has been altered like so many other churches these past few decades in terms of the traditional altar having since been replaced by a freestanding one. Now before readers too quickly lament this, it should also be noted that much that was ill advised was done to this altar and reredos in the 19th century that was of a "art Sainte-Sulpice" character:

Photo from 1934
Readers will note the semi-gothic, white and gold "wedding cake" style altar that was added along with the additional statues to either side.  In addition, the original painted work of the reredos had been painted over. These additions and modifications are all lamentable to say the least (but fortunately not irreversible) and is a good a reminder that poorly thought out renovations are not limited to our own period of history (even though they have been arguably more frequent these past few decades).

Here is the chapel as it stands today, showing its restored reredos, though now with other timebound renovations in place, stemming from the postconciliar period:

By Travis K. Witt - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
From the height seen here, one would reasonably expect that there would have been the usual predella which would have had the effect of both raising up the altar from the rest of the sanctuary and joining it more closely to the reredos itself. Thereupon, probably on a gradine, would have sat the usual altar cards and altar candlesticks, and no doubt also some form of tabernacle.

The website of San Miguel offers the following history of the reredos:
The wooden altar screen, or reredos, at the front of San Miguel Chapel is one of the oldest in New Mexico. The inscription on the lower left-hand corner reads: “This altar was erected through the piety of Don Jose Antonio Ortis in the year 1798.” It is reputed to be designed by the “Laguna Santero”, an anonymous but hugely influential artist who worked in New Mexico between 1796 and 1808. Its twisted “Solomonic columns” on either side are thought to be the first examples in New Mexico and are very typical of the Laguna Santero. The altar screen was painted over with several layers of house paint in the late 1800s but was restored under the direction of Ms. E. Boyd, artist and the first Spanish Colonial Art Curator at the Museum of International Folk Art.

In the center of the reredos is a statue of San Miguel (St. Michael), the patron of San Miguel Chapel. It was carved in old Mexico around 1700 and was brought by Franciscan Friars to Santa Fe. Above the statue of San Miguel is a large painting of Christ the Nazarene that dates from the mid-18th century and was rediscovered behind the altar screen by archeologists in 1955. The painting of St. Michael the Archangel above it dates from 1745. The artist is Bernardo Miera y Pacheco (1713-1785), who is best known as the foremost of the early cartographers of this region. Among his artistic works is the beautiful stone altar screen in Cristo Rey church in Santa Fe. Many art historians consider him the first New Mexican santero and a great influence on the early santeros of the 19th century. Both of these paintings had been painted over, and extensive cleaning and artistic restoration were required to return them to their current appearance.

The four oval paintings on the reredos date from the early 18th century and originated in Colonial Mexico. The painting at the top left is St. Teresa of Avila; on the bottom left is St. Francis of Assisi. At the top right is St. Gertrude of Germany; on the bottom right is St. Louis IX, King of France.
Here are a few details to give you a closer look:

It is difficult to comprehend how the central painted panels, as well as all the floriated painted work was covered up in the 19th century.
The 18th century statue of St. Michael, carved in Mexico in 1700.
Portrait of St. Louis on the reredos. Also take note of the decorative work around the portrait itself. 
We can be thankful that the 19th century renovations to the reredos were undone. It is surely to be hoped that one day a more accurate altar might also grace this historic chapel once again.

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