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When the Europeans first settled in Puerto Rico by the end of the sixteenth century, most of the religious art was imported from Spain and Portugal. Spanish colonizers also brought the tradition of carving wood saints to other major centers in The Americas such as Mexico, New Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean Islands and some other countries in South America, as well as in the Pacific Ocean.
The Santos de Palo tradition began in the Island of Puerto Rico in colonial times. The locals known as "jibaros or criollos" worshiped the Santos de Palo as part of their religious rituals. During these rituals they invoked the intervention of the saints in their every day life.
In Puerto Rico, during the pre-industrial period, from about 1650 to 1940, churches were scarce and located only in few towns. As a consequence, the "criollos or jibaros" were driven to practice their religious faith in their own homes. The carved images of saints served an important role facilitating the worshiping and practice of their faith. The self taught rural carvers combined their religious needs and creativity, and created a new art known today as the "Santos de Palo".
With the change of sovereignty in 1898 and the annexation of Puerto Rico to the USA, our economy, religion and education underwent many changes, leading to the decline of the "Santos" tradition. Better job opportunities in other areas, the influx of new religions, the change of rural communities to urban areas, and the use of religious plastic figures caused that our "Santos de Palo" tradition was almost abandoned. These incredible art pieces gracefully avoided the mass production imposed by the modern age making the survival of this art for a challenging one.
In the mid 1930s, the fate of the "Santos" took a turn for the better. Art collectors and historians began to include the carved saints in their collections and to distinguish them as valuable artistical expressions. In addition, the Dominican friars established in Bayamón ( a town in the metropolitan area of Puerto Rico), exhibited their collections in the Netherlands and provided the opportunity for the Santos collection to be shown around the world. As an example, in 1961 a Santos exhibition was held in France. The exhibit’s Santos were brought from the rustic altars of the Puerto Rican county side into city museums in different countries, placing our Santeros and Santeras (wood saint carvers) next to the worlds’ greastest artists. Currently, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, has the largest world collection of Santos from Puerto Rico, donated by Don Teodoro Vidal a nationally renowned Puerto Rican historian.
WHAT IS A WOOD SAINT?
The relatively small wood portable figure is between 5” and 30” tall and symbolizes the strong religious beliefs and traditions of our people. They are holy images or devotional objects made for household use to meet the spiritual needs of the rural islanders. Most of the figures are made in bultos (3-D figures) in following positions standing, kneeling, or enthroned. The hands were usually carved from a separate piece of wood . The eyes were painted and sometimes were made out of glass. Each Santo was carved with a corresponding emblematic icon (arrows, rosaries, roses, crosses, etc.), in order to keep the religious identity and meaning.
Devotees believed that the image contained the saint’s spirit and could intercede before God on their behalf. In the past, as well as now, the Santos were carved primarily using soft woods such as cedar which was cut during full moon to avoid termites. Originally they used rudimentary tools such as old knives, sevillanas (Spanish blades), cuchillas (blades), gubias (curved blades) or machetes to cut, shape and form the Santos. They were usually polished with crumbs of glass. They applied gesso to the talla (carved pieces) to protect the wood and then painted it according to the tradition. This same process has been used to make the hundreds of thousands of Santos since the 15th century until the present time. Today commercial tools and sanders are used to finish the talla. Each artisan has its own techniques that make their style unique.
WHO ARE THE SANTEROS?
For the Puertorican santeros and santeras, making a Santo represents a return to their roots. Those talladores (carvers) are talented men and women who honor our cultural heritage by bringing bits of woods to life and transforming them into beautiful unique pieces of religious art. These pieces have become symbols of our culture, of what we are, and of what Puerto Ricans revere. Their skills were often transmitted from fathers to sons, to wives, to brothers, or other relatives. Although santeros and santeras had no formal academic training, they were able to teach and pass in to other generations their knowledge.
The rediscovery or rescue of the Santos tradition was the mission of many institutions and people, and among them don Ricardo Alegria from the Puerto Rican Cultural Institute in 1966; don Walter Murray Chiesa from The Puerto Rico Economy and Development Administration; and don Teodoro Vidal, a Puerto Rican historian. Other institutions and other individuals contributed to the preservation of this mystical tradition.
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