By Teresa Dovalpage
If you live in Taos or are a frequent visitor, you probably know the San Francisco de Asís Church, made famous by such artists as Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams.
To this day, the church is still the most photographed and painted building in the country. Do you know that it is also a National Historic Landmark? Perhaps. But what many people don’t know is that this renowned church is also home to one of the most intriguing works of art in Taos—a painting called “The Shadow of the Cross.”
After collecting a small fee of $3, a church docent guided the visitors (there were four of us) to a small room where the painting is kept. The room was furnished with several chairs and a small TV and VCR. It smelled faintly of incense, though I’m sure no censers were used in that area. The church itself is located in a separate building.
First, we watched a 15-minute documentary about the history of the Ranchos church and how it was built. It also included details about the “The Shadow of the Cross” and its creator, the French-Canadian painter Charles Henry Ault, who completed it in the late 19th century. The painting was exhibited at the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis and other places until Mrs. Herbert Sidney Griffin, a wealthy Wichita Falls resident who had a second home in Taos, bought it and donated it to the Ranchos church in 1958.
When the documentary was over, the docent directed our attention to the painting. With the lights on, it looked rather ordinary: a life-size image of Jesus standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. One of the visitors started sneezing and wanted to get out; her friend convinced her to stay “at least until the miracle or whatever it was happened.”
“We don’t call it a miracle,” the docent said. “We just say that it’s unexplainable. You will see!”
With that, she turned off the light. Then the image of Jesus started fading until only a silhouette was left. After two or three minutes the image looked totally dark, and the small clouds that surrounded it—clouds that were barely visible before—became more defined and seemed to glow. Someone let out an audible gasp.
But that wasn’t all. Soon a cross, totally invisible up to that point, appeared over the silhouette’s left shoulder.
“Look at that fishing boat!” a woman said.
I didn’t see it, though. All of us could see the cross clearly, but only two were able to detect the boat.
An eerie luminescence fell over the scene, and the image of Jesus turned almost three-dimensional. It acquired a consistency that it didn’t have before.
“This is an optical illusion,” a man grumbled, but his voice cracked a bit. “Some kind of trick, I bet.”
Nobody answered. After a while, the docent turned the lights on again and a brief discussion ensued.
“Isn’t it possible that a phosphorescent pigment makes the painting glow in the dark?” the skeptical asked.
“The painting has been tested several times, and scientists have concluded that no luminescent materials are part of its composition,” the docent answered. “And you have to remember that it was created before the discovery of radium.”
“How come I didn’t see the boat?” a woman asked as I was ready to pose exactly the same question.
“I felt that Jesus was looking straight at me,” her friend said, “a kind of Mona Lisa effect.”
“Well, I didn’t notice that!”
“We are aware that not everyone experiences it the same,” the docent said. “But we have no explanation for it. That’s why we call it ‘a mystery.’”
“Inspiring,” “intriguing” and “amazing” were some of the adjectives used to describe the painting. In the end, everyone agreed that it was indeed worth the $3 fee. Taos is all about viewpoints and angles of vision. It doesn’t show the same to everybody. That’s what makes it unique—and mysterious as well.
ODD FELLOWS: More local lore and mystery
Manby Hot Springs
These two sand bottom and rock pools located near the ruins of an old stagecoach stop on the east bank of the Río Grande are named for a ruthless, land-grabbing swindler named Arthur Manby. The British immigrant’s shady business dealings beginning in the late 1880s are still widely held to be the motive behind his “mysterious” death in 1929. One of his unrealized visions was to create gardens and a grand hotel for tourists on the Indian land that became known as the Manby Hot Springs.
To get there, head north of Taos to the town of Arroyo Hondo; from State Highway 522 North at mile 5.3 turn west onto County Road B007. Go about 2.5 miles and turn left onto another dirt road just before B007 makes a hard turn to the right. This stretch of road to the Manby Hot Springs parking lot needs to be taken slowly and is best negotiated with a high-clearance vehicle. Continue past the Dobson House sign and take the next left fork. Continue staying to your right until you reach the large parking lots for the Manby Hot Springs. At the left side of the parking area, take the dirt and rock path to the river, about a 15-20 minute walk.
Hotel La Fonda de Taos
One of the earliest hotels in town, Hotel La Fonda de Taos on Taos Plaza, unexpectedly houses a collection of “Forbidden Art” paintings by author D.H. Lawrence. A former owner of the hotel and fan of Lawrence named Saki Karavas acquired the collection from the second husband of Lawrence’s widow, Frieda, after her death in 1956. Karavas displayed the paintings in his office along with countless other paintings and photos. One could pay a dollar or two to view them. Today, representations of the “Forbidden Art Collection” hang in their own gallery in the historic La Fonda.
D.H. Lawrence Ranch
Speaking of Mr. Lawrence, after he died in 1930 of tuberculosis in France his widow, Frieda, had his body cremated. The ashes were returned to the New Mexico ranch and mixed with the mortar used to build his memorial chapel on the property.
Read more about the ranch in the article “The Artful. The Legendary.” in the Authentic section.