San Francisco de Asís is one of the most painted and photographed churches in the world. But it’s not the front of this lovely church that draws the attention of artists and tourists but the massive, graceful adobe buttresses at the church’s rear and sides. Many New Mexico churches sport buttresses to support the adobe walls, but San Francisco de Asís’s have a special elegance—and a west-facing location that makes shadows play on the church’s curves in the afternoon light—that give it an almost mystical quality. Some even say that at certain times the face of Jesus appears in the shadows.
You’ll find San Francisco de Asís just south of Taos on NM 68. If you’re coming from Santa Fe on the main road (also called the “Low Road” and the “River Road”), it’ll be on your right just after the road sign announcing the village of Ranchos de Taos. The High Road, however, will put you onto NM 68 just north of the church. Turn left onto the highway and the church will be on your left. You’ll see the church’s colossal buttresses right on the other side of the parking area.
The front of the building is also beautiful (in fact, it’s the cover image of my book on historic New Mexico churches) and a lovely example of Spanish Colonial architecture. There are double bell towers topped with white wooden crosses, as well as a center cross, and an arched front doorway. The church is built in a cruciform shape—that is, in the shape of a cross. You can see the two transepts (the arms of the cross) at the back of the church. (Another of New Mexico’s more accessible historic churches, the Santuario de Chimayó, is, by contrast, in the more simple “single nave” style, with no side transepts.) A statue of St. Francis of Assisi, that ubiquitous patron of New Mexico, stands in the gated courtyard.
The church is usually open to visitors during the day. Since many of New Mexico’s old churches are kept locked, this is a wonderful opportunity to experience the architectural features and santero-style art that New Mexico’s historic churches are known for. Notice the wooden ceiling beams, called vigas, supported by carved wooden corbels. The main altar and north transept are graced by large altar screens (called reredos and pronounced “rear-dos”), probably painted by the prolific santero Molleno, who likely also fashioned the bultos (wooden statues) at the side altar.
San Francisco de Asís was not completed until 1810, probably because raids by the nomadic Comanches and other Plains tribes inspired Spanish settlers to huddle for protection at Taos Pueblo long after a treaty with the Comanches was reached in 1779. Not until the end of the eighteenth century did the settlers of Ranchos de Taos return to their lands and begin work on their church. Today, the church is an active parish. When visiting, please observe the “no photographs” signs and be respectful of those who have come to the church to pray.