The Catholic Church is known for its love of sumptuous aesthetics where beauty and suffering meet, often to extreme effect. That tendency shows up in polychrome sculptures created in Spain and the Americas between the 16th and 19th centuries. These wood and clay depictions of tortured saints, painted in fleshy tones and exaggerated with drops of blood made from beaded glass, were created to remind their owners of their faith—and the sacrifice that went with it. The Hispanic Society Museum & Library in Upper Manhattan owns one of the largest collections of polychrome sculptures outside of Spain, and last week, it opened an exhibition, “Gilded Figures: Wood and Clay Made Flesh” (through January 9), that explores this collection.
By bringing together some 20 works, “Gilded Figures” tracks the development of polychrome sculpture in Spain and how the medium was adopted to new ends when it was brought to the Americas through colonization, evolving in style as Indigenous artists began making use of it. Within Spain and its colonies, these sculptures decorated vaunted churches and even served as focal points in humble homes.
“I want [audiences] to appreciate the wonderful creativity and inventiveness of these artists who worked in a medium that has gone too long under-appreciated, especially the female and Indigenous artists who are so often unrecognized,” said Patrick Lenghan, the exhibition’s curator.
The names of many of the creators of these works have unfortunately been lost to time. In some instances, some of these works were even modified by their owners. “People have very intimate relationships with these pieces,” Lenaghan said. “So they felt entitled to change things.”
The exhibition opens with life-sized sculptures of saints and Jesus, whose proportions and painted skin give them an uncanny presence. Following those large works are imagenes de vestir, or dressed-up and highly stylized busts of the Virgin Mary and other saints. These works were outfitted with custom-made half-costumes designed by the women of the household. The sewn garments could be placed atop the busts and changed out, and were intended to mark particular religious events or to update the sculptures to match shifting fashion sensibilities—a practice that continues today in Spain. Because these clothes are switched periodically, older examples of this kind of textile art were often lost.
In some cases, sculptures included “Gilded Figures” were even completely painted over. The Mystical Marriage of Saint Catherine (ca. 1692), which depicts the saint’s legendary dream of an infant Jesus placing a ring on her finger, had five layers of paint. The Hispanic Society’s head conservationist, Hélène Fontoira Marzin, excavated those layers, and studied the piece using X-rays and other forms of scientific analysis to ultimately bring the piece closer to its original coloration.
The Mystical Marriage is of special significance because the sculpture, along with two other works on view nearby, was made by Luisa Roldán, the earliest documented woman sculptor in Spain. Roldán rose to extraordinary heights, even becoming a court sculptor to Charles II, yet she struggled financially as an artist. “Many male artists had taken the court position and eventually left it because the pay was so bad,” Lenaghan said, noting that male artists would instead create large-scale sculptural commissions for rich families. Because of her gender, Roldán was confined to doing ornate miniatures that, until very recently, when feminist art historians began championing her work, went largely under-appreciated.
Roldán isn’t the only woman artist included in “Gilded Figures.” The show features pieces by Andrea de Mena, who was trained by her father Pedro. Her works, like Roldán’s, tend to be miniatures, though two divergent examples come in Head of Saint Paul and Head of Saint John (both ca. 1700). Both are gruesome and life-sized, done on a scale typically reserved de Mena’s male contemporaries. Lenaghan said he suspects that many works from the de Mena workshop that are attributed to Pedro may actually have been done by Andrea. “It’s hard to tell where his work ends and hers begins,” Lenaghan said.
The exhibition also looks to show how polychrome sculptures later became tools for converting Indigenous peoples to Catholicism. Included in “Gilded Figures” is the work of Indigenous and mestizo artists active in present-day Mexico and Ecudaor. These artists were recruited to assist and even create their own polychrome sculptures in order to meet demand that outstripped the number of Spanish artists in the New World.
One major stylistic change in the works of these Indigenous artists is the syncretism of the Spanish art form with styles from Indigenous art-making. Recurring geometric forms can be found in the decorative columns and on the armor of a saint in a gilded and polychromed wood relief depicting Santiago Matamoros. Also known as Saint James the Moor Slayer, Matamoros is depicted riding upon his white stallion after felling a Muslim Moor during the mythical Battle of Clavijo, which came to represent the Christian expulsion of Muslims in Spain. Spanish colonizers used the imagery of Saint James to create parallel symbols of domination as they forced Indigenous peoples into slave labor and dispossessed them of their land.
Eventually, Indigenous artists would become masters of the craft that had been forced upon them. Exhibited in the show is the work of 18th century Indigenous Ecuadorian artist Manuel Chili, who also went by Caspicara (or “Wooden Face”) and who is one of the few Indigenous artists whose works are attached to his name. While Catholicism may have been a foreign religion, Chili’s art looks to make sense of the immense suffering wrought by colonization.
It’s written on the faces of the the four figure in one of the show’s standout works, The Four Fates of Man: Death; Soul in Heaven; Soul in Purgatory; Soul in Hell (ca. 1775). These small sculptures depict the fate of man after his death. The first is just a skeleton as the body only has one path; the three following sculptures display a trio of options for the soul: hell, purgatory, and heaven. The image of the soul in hell is brutal, with a red-skinned person shown bound in chains, screaming and clawing at a gaping wound in his chest. An emaciated man praying to heaven acts as a stand-in for the soul in purgatory, while the soul in heaven is doll-like and devoid of emotion. Perhaps heaven isn’t bliss, the artist seems to say.
“Here you have the same Catholic Church trying to impart the same message,” Lenaghan said. “But they’re dealing with a different people and a different place, and it shows.”