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A beautiful and historic tin, glass and wallpaper nicho

with a hand-drawn paper retablo of El Santo Nino de Atocha

by Jose Maria Apodaca, c.1885-1890

This nicho is an early masterpiece by the greatest known tinsmith of historic New Mexico, Jose Maria Apodaca (1844-1924), who lived and worked in the tiny Hispanic village of Ojo de la Vaca about 20 miles southeast as the crow flies from Santa Fe. The nicho is most beautifully shaped and hand fashioned of tin panels salvaged from an old tin lard can. According to a stamped, embossed label on one of the tin surfaces pictured below, this particular can was brought to Santa Fe from a company in Chicago sometime in the latter part of the 19th Century. At the time, it would have most likely traveled by wagon train over the old Santa Fe trail which runs close to Ojo de la Vaca.

The tin panels have all been beautifully and precisely scalloped around their outer edges with multitudes of small scallops, one reason why Apodaca has sometimes been referred to as “The small scallop tinsmith”. There are eight beautifully-made glass and richly-colored wallpaper panels around the perimeter of the nicho, three small ones each on the top and bottom and one larger one on each side. In its center panel, the nicho features an extremely rare and beautifully hand-drawn image of El Santo Nino de Atocha (The Holy infant Christ Child of Atocha) who, according to centuries-old Catholic legend, is said to wander the streets at night seeking out and assisting those in need and constantly wearing out his shoes in the process.

View of the ruined church in the now-mostly

abandoned village of Ojo de la Vaca, NM

We do not know the artist who created this lovely image, possibly it was Apodaca himself, but it is most finely rendered in India ink and colored pencil or pastel and it is a complete and unique work of art and expression of devotion in its own right and when incorporated into a nicho as magnificent as this one, the whole becomes that much greater than the sum of the individual parts. There are only a tiny handful, perhaps only 6 or 7, of such hand-drawn images of El Santo Nino known to exist in historic New Mexican tinwork. The Holy image is set into the center of a single, large tin panel which forms the back of the nicho which has also been beautifully and decoratively stamped and scalloped to “frame” the Saint’s image. The overall level of artistic and technical sophistication, effort and exuberance evident here is quite remarkable and consistent with the powerful devotional nature of such a piece.

“Fate and good fortune has preserved a substantial body of  Jose Maria Apodaca’s work,

preserving it for posterity so that  it may be appreciated by successive generations of New Mexicans and collectors who have the good sense to value the contributions of those who came before. As long as there are those individuals who appreciate beauty, the Ojo de la Baca tinsmith’s artistry will endure.”

—New Mexico tinwork authority

and scholar, Maurice M. Dixon, Jr.

Excerpt from an essay © 2012 by Maurice M. Dixon, Jr.                     

All rights reserved. Published by permission.

The nicho measures 13 1/2” in height, 12 1/2” in width and it is 3” in depth. It is in particularly excellent original condition overall, especially given its obvious fragility and 125-or-so years of age with only a couple of very small, insignificant cracks to two of the small glass panels. One of the tin “wings” at the right side of the nicho is slightly bent, but appears to be have been this way since the nicho was made. This nicho is a time warp, preserved essentially intact, of life as lived in late 19th century Hispanic territorial New Mexico. In the Hispanic household of its time, such an important piece would have been the devotional, spiritual centerpiece of any family home or private chapel, most likely that of a family of means who could have afforded to commission or purchase such an elaborate piece; it would have been worshipped, consulted and venerated on all personal and family occasions from the most routine daily prayer to more significant events such as births, deaths, sicknesses, weddings, birthdays, religious Holidays, baptisms etc. It could also have been used in essentially the same way in a local church, chapel or Penitente Morada.

This nicho is a splendid and deeply compelling slice of old New Mexican history, religion, Folk Art and Hispanic devotional tradition all at the same time. A rare, beautiful and timeless object indeed invested with a great amount

of artistry and intense devotion.

Price available upon request


The end of  The Old Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe, NM, circa 1848


We recently received an email containing some very interesting further information from a professional Southwestern archaeologist regarding the particular type of tin lard pail which was recycled to make this tin nicho:

“The embossed logo for the lard pail (shown in the last photo of the listing, trimmed back and partial) is for the ANGLO AMERICAN PACKING & PROVISION CO., which was based out of Chicago. Under that name, the company existed from late 1870’s to 1902


While working archaeological survey in the Cibola National Forest near Ft. Wingate, NM in the last couple months, we documented 2 Anglo-American lard pails with a logo identical to that in the nicho (see photo below). The examples we saw date to roughly 1885-1902 based on associated hole-in-cap milk cans, my impression was that it was in the earlier part of that date range.” 

—Jay Willian

June 24, 2017

© 2017 Jay Willian.

All rights reserved

Photo courtesy of and copyright by Jay Willian, 2017. All rights reserved.