Documented popular Puerto Rican imagery also includes, in addition to the wood carvings, small planks carved in relief. In the earliest ones, the bodies appear to be carved in one piece, except for the hands and the insignias, which were carved and added after the piece was done. That explains why so many of the examples in our collection lack these parts. Traditionally, the saints were carved from native wood, although some have capes, cloaks or other articles of clothing made from cloth or papier-mache. Also documented, though on a smaller scale, are images made from plaster or paper. The Puerto Rican saints vary in size between 5 and 25 inches tall, although life-size carvings have also been made.
The worship and carving of saints was intimately linked to the tradition of having an altar in the home because of the distance between the church and the rural zones of the island. In the home, the image of the saint was placed on a shelf or in a small niche that was generally located high on a wall in the bedroom or the living room. The niche could be a small box of wood with two doors that opened and closed. They were also built with a glass front, which transformed the niche into a small display cabinet. Sometimes, the upper part of the niche was decorated with a small peak that resembled the roof of a house with two gables. The niches represented a small chapel or reliquary.
The oldest documented saints date to the 18th century. However, the worship of the saints in Puerto Rico appears to have acquired particular importance in the 19th century, since a great variety of carvings date to that era. Devout Catholics believed the saints protected their families and interceded on their behalf in the divine hierarchy of the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The practices ordered by the Catholic Church toward the saints consisted of praying to them, lighting candles and celebrating their liturgical festivals. There were other practices that took on a social aspect, which contributed to the enrichment of the tradition of popular worship. One of these was "dressing up the saint." This meant repainting the carving every year on the eve of the liturgical festival for that saint. Other practices were holding a wake or a "promesa" that began on the eve of the liturgical festival for that saint. This was a practice of thanking the saint for a granted favor. During the celebration, the saint was removed from the niche and located on an altar of palm fronds. The palm fronds were placed on a table covered with a tablecloth of fabric or lace. If it was believed that the saint had cured a person or an animal, "milagros" were offered. These were offerings made of wax and metal that represented the part of the body that was cured.
The iconographic variations of the saints were and are varied, although it appears that certain preferences have always existed. Among them are the relationships between patron saints and the different towns. Saint Anthony, the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin of Carmel, the Virgin of the Rosary, the Virgin of Montserrate, Saint Joseph, Saint Michael, Saint Raphael, the infant Jesus and Santiago Apostol are some examples. Also common are carvings of Saint Blaise, Saint Barbara, Saint Ramon Nonato, Saint Rita and the Three Kings.
At one time, it was believed the art of carving saints was destined to disappear. One of the factors against the carving of saints was the evangelization by protestant religions that developed in the early 20th century and brought, among other consequences, the practice of burning images of the saints. However, this threat also created an interest among sociologists, anthropologists, and other scholars in rescuing these images, which had been passed from generation to generation. The saints, beyond being religious objects, represented a historical and cultural facet of our people. They have become an object of sociological, anthropological, religious and artistic study.
This re-valuation of the saints as a culturally valuable element has also brought about the consequence that they have become collectors' items and investments. This has led public institutions that are dedicated to preserving and promoting our heritage, such as the Institute for Puerto Rican Culture, to take an interest in promoting the art of popular imagery through contests and exhibitions of carvings of saints in their museums.
Over time, the carvings of saints have become a national symbol beyond their religious context and have become an object with cultural value that transcends the island. An example is the exhibition of the collection of Teodoro Vidal at the Smithsonian Institution.
Adapted and updated by the PROE Editorial Group
Original source: Doreen Colón Camacho, "La imaginería popular religiosa" 1995. Centro de Estudios Humanísticos, Museo de la Universidad del Turabo.
Autor: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: September 14, 2010.