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The moment had come. Constantino Reyes-Valerio turned the stone statue in his hands and examined it closely. What he said would determine whether Fred Kline had found another priceless artifact or an interesting curio.
It was April 1996, five months after Kline had bought the statue at the estate sale and taken it home. Jann had immediately built an altar for the piece. As the couple admired the statue by candlelight, they became intrigued. Neither had seen anything like it before.
They hit the books.
Kline started at the beginning, studying early Christian images and working his way toward the present. He read anything he could about the Virgin Mary. After a week or so, he'd exhausted his library sources.
"There was nothing," Kline says. "Nothing like this except hints at its shape. The other iconography was nowhere to be found."
The sculpture, which Kline dubbed "La Virgencita del Nuevo Mundo (The Little Virgin of the New World)," stood 15 inches tall, weighed 15 pounds, and was carved from a brownish lava. She was clearly an image of the Virgin Mary, Kline thought, similar to Immaculate Conception images such as the Indian Madonna statuette in Patzcuaro, Mexico, or the Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe statue in Estremadura, Spain. All featured similar crowns, halos and bell-shaped cloaks; all depicted Mary standing upon a crescent moon.
But La Virgencita had stylistic differences that set her apart. On her cape and clothing were zigzag patterns, wheel-like symbols and markings resembling feathers. She had the wide nose, thick lips and large eyes of Aztec carvings. Kline guessed she was pre-Columbian, but turned to curators, historians and Mexican folk-art experts in and around Santa Fe for help.
But the study of 16th-century Indo-Christian sculpture is still in its infancy, and almost all examples exist as sculptural reliefs on 16th-century buildings in Mexico. The experts simply did not have a large enough body of work to compare, contrast and develop stylistic markers that could determine with absolute certainty what was and what was not authentic.
"Basically, nobody said, 'My God, you've got a treasure here,' " Kline recalls. "No one said much of anything. They didn't know what she was."
Again and again, Kline was referred to Constantino Reyes-Valerio, an art historian with the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia y Historia in Mexico City, who's considered the world authority on Indo-Christian art. Kline sent the scholar photos of La Virgencita. The statue looked authentic, Reyes-Valerio said, but he had to see it in person to know for sure. Kline flew the historian to Santa Fe, where he hosted a reception and publicly displayed La Virgencita for the first time. Before the party, Reyes-Valerio conducted his inspection of the statute. After studying it for several minutes, he said, "I've never seen anything like it. It's authentic."
La Virgencita was probably made around 1540 in a small village in Central Mexico, according to Reyes-Valerio; it was likely kept in a small wall niche or above a door. The figurine definitely depicts the Virgin Mary and was probably copied from a Spanish book engraving. Since the engraved image was likely small, details were left to the Mexican-Indian artist, who added Aztec imagery. The friars who inspected the completed statue were more interested in faithful parishioners than skillful carvers and either did not recognize the native symbols or did not care.
In a short written opinion, Reyes-Valerio concluded: "La Virgencita is a unique and authentic Indo-Christian sculpture from 16th-century Spanish-Colonial Mexico. I know of no comparable work in museums in the United States, Latin America or elsewhere. La Virgencita is, in my opinion, one of the early rare examples of religious art made in the New World and one of the finest Mexican-colonial 'Indian Madonna' single-figure sculptures known to exist."
The endorsement was more than Kline had hoped for. And soon after Reyes-Valerio's visit, La Virgencita also had the backing of a scientist. Susan Barger, an art conservationist and materials expert at the University of New Mexico, traced the sculpture's cantera stone to the Los Humeros volcanic field about 180 kilometers from Mexico City, where Indo-Christian artifacts often have been found. She also discovered a layer of ceramic underpaint in the crevices of La Virgencita made from tropical soils.
Barger's opinion: The statuette could very well be what Reyes-Valerio thinks it is. The stone almost certainly came from central Mexico and not from the Santa Fe area, where Kline bought the piece. Although she could not date the stone (which would not determine when the statue was carved, anyway), she found no microscopic residue suggesting it had been made in this century, or even the last. As for how the statue traveled to New Mexico, Barger, like Reyes-Valerio, had no reason to doubt Kline's hypothesis that a Mexican family brought it with them to Santa Fe.
"I think it's real," Barger says. "It's so unusual that it's very unlikely that it would be a fake."
Next Kline presented La Virgencita to scholars, art historians and curators, who became as excited about the piece as he was.
"I have to say, I was totally blown away by this," says Mary Miller, a pre-Columbian art specialist at Yale. "It's a major piece. Those big wheel-like things on her cape are identified with the Aztec maize goddess. Not only that, what she's wearing inside her cloak are feathers. Big beautiful carved feathers. The Virgin Mary doesn't wear feathers like that. This is probably one of the very first objects made by a Nahuatl-speaking artist that is tailored to the new religion, Christianity. This is just the most amazing thing."
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