Carved wood Santos figures are some of the most fascinating artifacts to spring from the Spanish presence in Central and South America, signifying as a testament to a burgeoning faith and a need to visually represent highly regarded figures of the Catholic tradition. These small, hand carved wooden sculptures of saints and holy figures are the legacy of the Spanish spiritual conquest of Latin America and have been created from the 16th century to the present day. The most remarkable examples are intriguingly rough and attributed to the early Christian converts of Central and South America, indigenous people who made contact with the early Spanish missionaries. Varying dramatically in refinement, the most balanced compositions serve as examples of Spanish and Mexican Renaissance art. These coarse remains exemplify a record of a growing faith in places such as the forgotten small villages of the New World. The Holy Family and figures such as St. Francis are among the favorite subject matter of the Santos, reflecting the early missionary efforts in Latin America led by the old religious orders including the Franciscans.
The scholarship on such objects is scarce, and most references to such pieces seem to be forever encased in the dusty footnotes of Jesuit histories on the missionary experience. In a compelling if slightly outdated article entitled “Santos. An Enigma of American Native Art,” Sheldon Cheney and Martha Candler refresh readers with interesting insights into these historically rich pieces. The authors lay out a brief history of the figures and proceed into a discussion about so-called “primitive” art. Defending the soundness of such art forms they note that “wherever Christian art has remained fresh and close to its source, we find something like the Santos. They have the quality of the work that sprang forth where Christianity went north and west from Byzantium during the first thousand years” (Cheney 23). Framing the pieces within the context of a fresh reception, the authors convey the unadulterated nature of the imagery as being in tune with the rawest and most pure Christian beliefs. This freshness is one of the most redeeming quality of these pieces. Few pieces of art seem more hewn by faith, thought and meaning as these do.
Santos are owned by numerous institutions including the Hispanic Museum in New York, the Museum of International Folk Art, the National Museum of American History, the Smithsonian and the Brooklyn Museum, to name a few. There is a sea of examples but seem to be a curatorial blind spot and are rarely displayed in mass or assembled into traveling exhibitions. Santos are much more than meets the eye in that they display the transatlantic exchange of ideas, beliefs and skills and visual records of concepts in translation.
MIR’s office houses three of these pieces, examples that display just a fraction of the range of these objects. Like many Santos of considerable age, they are worn and are missing hands, but that visible age is just what makes them appealing. The smallest example, resembling the Biblical Joseph, is also the most refined. With a thick, sap like veneer and deeply carved robe, it is strikingly similar to a Joseph statue that would appear in a Nativity scene. Given its more finished quality it may have been imported from Spain during the early centuries of the Spanish presence, or it is possible that it is one of many that have been created by skilled Latin American craftsmen of the 19th or possibly early 20th century. The second example is older and displays crude facial features and a cape that still retains its original yellow paint. The robe is not at all draped and the blunt hand exposes the nature of the tools used. Finally MIR houses a Santo in which multiple layers of paint are visible on its robe; the lower layer is green and adorned with silver painted arrows while the top layer is a yellow robe with red diamond-shaped embellishments. Clearly painted, neglected, refurbished and neglected again, its multi-colored appearance at present draws viewers deeper into their imagination. Most likely a piece from before the 19th century, it generates countless questions but reveals few answers.
One of the most fascinating, if not a bit frustrating, characteristics of Santos is their elusive individual past. Unless a piece has been meticulously documented (which most have not) there remains little in the way of evidence to pinpoint their exact origin and creator. The anonymous element of the Santos makes them all the more powerful and serves as an exciting exercise for reflection. Just which chapel, which altar did these pieces adorn? Were they, like many, eventually relocated in the home of a peasant or worker to be privately revered, to serve as a modern day Lares? The pieces are visually compelling but even more remarkable for their ability to dredge up questions and send one deep into thought about the murky waters of time that reflection only further disturbs and obscures.
Having adorned MIR’s walls for years, these pieces impart to the space a certain air of mystery, an essence infused with the numerous hours of thoughtful contemplation directed at them and a visual record of the eventual decay that awaits all objects regardless of their beauty. For many there is comfort to be found in the sight of such images; their peeling paint, crudely wrought wood, missing appendages and tiny holes of biological degradation remind all who see them of the long and relentless passage of time.
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Cheney, Sheldon and Martha Candler. “Santos. An Enigma of American Native Art,”
in Parnassus vol. 7 no. 4 (May, 1935), pp. 22-24.
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