K.C. writes me that she feels quite constricted during the pandemic because she cannot frequent the thrift store from which she purchased these two “dolls.”
And now that she has the time, she asks me, “What are they?”
K.C., the dolls are religious figures. You found quite fine ones, and yes, I want to frequent that thrift store too, when the pandemic is under control!
They stand quite tall at 3 feet for the Mary and under 3 feet for the Joseph figure. These are Santos, religious icons found in the colonies of the kingdom of Spain, and they represent the Holy Family and the Saints.
I find it unfortunate that many auction houses classify these are “folk art,” but they are anything but that.
This is a tradition going back to the 16th century, a tradition that tells the tale of the attempt to convert the indigenous people of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, South and Central America, and importantly, for K.C., New Mexico and California, by using such lifelike and accessible icons. They are beguiling even today and remind us that the saints were saints — but in human form.
You will see the K.C.’s figures are unclothed, and there is a reason for that. To clothe the figures is considered a duty and an honor.
Sculptures were decorated with expensive and gaudy clothing and bright shining jewels, and that is also a Spanish tradition. Sometimes these figures were used in a private chapel or altar, or they were venerated in churches. But K.C.’s figures are too small to have been ecclesiastical (used in a grand church) and must have been used for private veneration. I believe these date from the early 20th century.
K.C., because yours is carved in 360 degrees, yours is called a revueltos or a bultos — as opposed to those figures carved to mount into the back of an altarpiece in a grand church and therefore carved in relief for a frontal view of 180 degrees.
Specifically, yours has a frame upon which we would expect to have placed clothing upon which will adorn the figure, and that form is called a Bastidore. Because these figures will be dressed, the arms necessarily are needed to articulate above the lattice cag. They’re meant to hold a grand gown for the Mary figure, for example.
To attend to and dress a Bastidor figure is a family honor and religious act, just like we dress our children for a special day!
A craftsman who makes these figures is called a Santeros, and I had the great pleasure of visiting a few great ones in New Mexico, a center for such art. Fourth-generation artists from New Mexico have made these figures, and some are found in the Vatican.
My guess is your figures originate from New Mexico because of the wood of which they are made, which is a light wood. The fact that they are smaller scale — and not made to be seen from the distance and from the viewpoint of many pews in a church — indicates an origin of New Mexico.
Once they are carved, the modeling of the features come from a mixture of wood shavings and mixed with a type of glue. That coating is called gesso, and it is then painted with the face and minor details.
If you want to dress such a figure, traditionally you would pay special attention to the head, and that is why you see no painted hair, only a bald pate waiting for a suitable crown, on K.C.’s figures.
You would design a halo or crown of costume jewels. Or, if you had the means, you would design real jewels to set off the head, and this headdress is called a Resplendor.
Traditionally, headdresses are made of punched tin, or, if you had the means: brass. If you were wealthy, you’d have it made of silver or gold and set with precious jewels.
Imagine how that would shine in the candlelight at a home altar.
Look closely and you will see that the Joseph figure once held a staff (think St. Christopher), and by this the Santeros was showing Joseph’s devotion.
If you owned one of these figures and followed the Holy Day calendar, you might “process” it through the streets. Note that to do so, you need an appropriate carriage!
K.C., the value of your two Bastidor Sculptures is $1,000. I think you did very well.
Now consider dressing your Bastidors! Maybe that will get us out of this pandemic faster.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.