This is a personal story of an object that was a gift to me by my partner this holiday season, a Santos figure at 32 inches tall of St. Francis.
And although I have a few Spanish Colonial Santos, this one is unique, because his finely wrought glass eyes follow me, and his mournful expression moves me.
The interest I have in works of art called Santos lies in the mix of cultures and craft traditions that they represent from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Saint effigies have been “in production” for centuries, but when the tradition of sculpting life-like figures of the Saints came to the Americas, a unique art form was born based on archetypes from Flanders, Spain and Italy. In areas such as ours with a heavy Spanish presence, those traditions were adopted by local artisans, who worked in an ancient style of carving based on local woods. The art was decorated with local pigments.
Since many Santos have been lovingly repaired (more about that later) over the years, the repairs themselves tell a story of changing traditions wrought by many hands.
In the case of a Santos, a repair or overpaint is actually a sign of authenticity and — devotion.
Before certain Holy Days, or during certain times of trouble, the faithful would “clean” and dress these figures.
For example, in the case of my St. Francis, his neck has been repaired at the back of his cowl, and not very professionally, and then overpainted with flesh colored house paint. This is to be expected. I also see signs of cleaning, a bit too rigorously, and traces of overpainting.
Due to his large scale, my St. Francis was likely used for public devotion, set into a church altar, for example. However, my partner also gave me a Santos figure of St. John (holding a book), which, because of its small scale, was used in a home altar. St. John is also broken and repaired, and his robe has been dotted with overpainted fake gold paint.
This palette of many colors is called “polychrome,” a tradition that flowed from Europe as a method of painting carved and gessoed wood.
The base is usually soft grained wood, overlayed with animal glue, with a coating of chalk and animal glue. Both are necessary for the next step, which is the paint surface.
Further reinforcing that my large St. Francis was used for public devotion is the richness of the colors used: He has areas of gold leaf, which is supported underneath by clay and glue, and his tunic is decorated with incised cross hatching, which imitates the texture of the fabric.
The paint used was typically oil, but also we find tempera (paints in egg yolk).
Yes, St. Francis is a saint representing the wisdom of poverty, hence his dull colored brown/green vestment, but the richness of his sainthood and “message” is indicated by the gold leaf. Color is a clue: Blue was the most expensive color to use, as well as gold leaf. Brown or green was not expensive; thus we have the reality of poverty and holiness in one Santos.
Unlike works of art of the same period in two dimensions, a “refresh” of the paint surface indicated veneration of the saint. Local woods were used, but for the more public Santos, when imported woods arrived in ships from Cuba or Honduras, these were purchased at great price.
Conservators of such works have a difficult decision regarding restoration because these layers of paint do indicate care and love, and the idea of bringing a work back to the “original” condition is questionable.
Cleaning with modern restoration solvents is also discouraged, as the various layers of paint will react differently to these. For example, alcohol-based solvents will eat away at certain paints. The most conservative approach is the best: Keep the Santos out of changes of temperature and humidity because wood expands and contracts in those cases.
Where was my St. Francis created? Because of the life-life soulful expression on the face, and the human-like glass eyes, and the quality of the face molding, the work is Peruvian, late 18th century.
The expression on the face could not have been achieved in wood alone: The artisan used a mixture of wax, rosin and chalk to mold the fine dignified expression. The meticulously crafted glass eyes indicate a Peruvian origin, as these enriched the deeply expressive, mannerist style.
The aim was to create a Santos that imitated life. The eyes are so realistic the devotee would think that those eyes could see. And perhaps they do.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press.
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.