Research concerning the Penitentes of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado holds out many unique gifts to scholarship. Unfortunately, because of the difficulties inherent in the study of this population, the information available is incomplete. One of the largest gaps in current scholarship lies in investigation of the medieval roots of Penitente devotion, another in the documentation and examination of their unique tradition of musical worship (the alabados), and a third in the role of women in Penitente society and spirituality. Further, work is still necessary to explore the theology expressed in Penitente art, ritual, and daily living. The area of Liturgical Studies offers the methods and approach necessary to address all of these issues.
This dissertation will present an historical analysis of the evolution of the northern New Mexican Penitente cult with an attempt to establish its relationship to the traditions of medieval Spain. This relationship can be revealed especially through the study of Penitente devotional music. The medieval musical roots that evolved into the expression known as Flamenco in Spain (including Arab/Islamic, Jewish/Ladino, and extra-Iberian Catholic/European traditions) appear to have been preserved in their more primitive forms in the isolation of northern New Mexico, perhaps because of the liturgical conservatism of the Penitentes, and reveal much about the group’s origin and the genesis of their spiritual world view.
Therefore, where the history of the group’s development has been disputed (and the prevalent theories will be explored), the arts give insight. In close relationship to this investigation, the dissertation will attempt an inquiry into Penitente understandings of their own unique theology. Finally, it will be the hope of this dissertation to demonstrate an active and even leadership-oriented role in for women in Penitente society and spirituality, which preliminary but extensive field interviews have so far confirmed, and which would be more consistent with the tradition’s medieval roots than the more popularly held understanding that the expression and devotion of the Penitentes is an exclusively male endeavor.