Saint Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order, is venerated for his humanity, humility and love of nature. The legend of St. Francis looms large in Santa Fe and the St. Francis Basilica, just a block off the central Plaza, draws many tourists. This Romanesque style cathedral was built between 1869 and 1886 on the site of an earlier church that was destroyed during the Pueblo Revolt–an uprising of the Native Indian population against the Spanish colonists.
The church also includes a curious side chapel devoted to a 30-inch high statue, La Conquistadora, Our Lady of Conquering Love. She is the oldest representation of the Virgin Mary in the United States and first came to Santa Fe in 1626. She was rescued from the 1680 Pueblo Revolt and then hidden. She returned in 1693 with Don DeVargas, whom the King of Spain sent to reclaim the city. He claimed “the Lady” helped prevent major bloodshed.
Researchers have not been able to establish her origin or how La Conquistadora originally arrived on the continent, but she is worshiped and considered the patroness of Santa Fe. Her presence is annually celebrated by parading the icon on San Francisco Street during the Fiesta de Santa Fe. This September event commemorates the city’s reconquest.
What I found fascinating is her wardrobe, a collection of outfits that are changed according to the church calendar. Her robes are handmade by faithful followers and many contain jewels and handwritten prayers sewn in the linings. Over 200 pieces of clothing are kept under lock and key in the Basilica, but for the first time have been put on display.
I had the rare treat of seeing the exquisite exhibit later on my visit. Admittedly the clothing looks doll-sized but carries a legendary past. Each article tells a story:some were stitched as offerings for answered prayers, others cut from the cloth of liturgical garments or even bridal gowns to add special meaning. In addition to her wardrobe, the icon’s crowns and jewelry are on display, including her diamond and emerald Byzantine cross.
To view her never before seen closet, visit The Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, which sits on Santa Fe’s Museum Hill. Threads of Devotion: The Wardrobe of La Conquistadora is on display through December 31st, 2010.