To offer gratitude for prayers answered, or to petition a saint's assistance with a particular need, the sacred practice of offering a milagro, a small metal charm, creates a beautiful piece of living art wherever a multitude of offerings gather.
Milagros, part of Spanish folk heritage traditions, are often nailed to a wooden surface within a church or on a personal piece of devotional art. Each milagro has a unique symbolism that is used to direct attention to a specific purpose of the believer. Often seen are heads, hearts, arms, legs, animals, praying figures, and organs. These small offerings have unique meanings specific to the giver, and can be literal or metaphorical. For example, a foot may represent a plea to heal a particular physical ailment or may stand as a statement for a journey undertaken.
My composition for this drawing originated from a section of milagros I viewed when visiting San Miguel Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Built prior to 1628, San Miguel Chapel is the oldest church in the United States. With exposed timber rafters, rustic white plaster walls, and aged wood plank floors that creak when you walk through the devotional silence of the small chapel, the sacred space fills its occupants with spiritual contemplation. At the front of the chapel, an elaborately carved, painted and weathered altar screen lifts the eyes of viewers to behold the equisite Spanish Colonial folk art santos figures, and painstakingly restored early American Christian paintings.
This building has been an important part of the Santa Fe community for hundreds of years. The cultures of Native Americans, Spanish colonialists and American pioneers have all intersected here to worship the divine. Periods of construction, destruction and rebuilding have been endured on this sacred site, and communities of people have worked together to restore and preserve the heritage of this special place. The continued practice of placing milagros as offerings bears witness to the commonality experienced through the expression of faith.
I was struck by the beauty of these simple, small, rustic metal charms intentionally set with nails into an aged piece of wood. Each milagro is purposely selected by individuals to embody an emotion or life event and then carefully placed to stand alone, intertwine or connect in some way with the other milagros in a collaborative expression of faith. A viewer cannot decipher the specific purpose each milagro was designed to have, but when viewed as a collective, these milagros communicate an authentic, raw, vulnerable beauty.
Compelled to meditate upon these diminutive, prayerful offerings, I composed this small artwork, and felt black and white graphite would best convey my quiet observations of the timeworn tradition of presenting a votive offering in the form of a milagro. In all, six layers of graduated graphite were combined to define the light and shade around the milagros and the crucifix on knotted rope featured in this composition.
My pencils were continually kept sharp to allow my hand to work within each confined shape. Varying the direction of pencil marks and pressure established diverse tones of light and shade and provided visual interest throughout the artwork. It was challenging to provide definition to these milagros, which are sometimes ambiguous in there appearance. I enjoyed thinking about each milagro as an offering, and tried to imagine the significance behind each one as I drew.
I minimally edited the arrangement of the milagros I saw, but instead included them in the composition very close to how they appeared at San Miguel Chapel. It was important to me to include a variety of milagro symbols in order to show the diversity of prayers and supplications expressed. Each hand milagro suggests the healing power of touch and connection to others. The heart milagros symbolize not just love, but who, how, and why you love. The head milagros represent knowledge and wisdom. Additionally, the angel, baby, animal and praying figure milagros represent special relationships and our dependency upon those relationships for a satisfying and fulfilled life. I enjoyed creating this special piece of art, which explores the significance behind the spiritual tradition of milagros as votive offerings.