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Santos and Retablos

October 27 - December 31, 2006


The Museum of Arts and Sciences has come a long way in 50 years: from a classroom in the basement of the Wesleyan Conservatory to the only museum in Georgia that interprets art, science, and the humanities in one location. Visitors may find out how the Museum got from there to here in a new exhibition. A display of devotional art from Latin America is also featured in an adjacent gallery.

Macon Memories: 50 Years at the Museum exhibits a variety of things the Museum has collected, from shells to meteorites, Pre-Columbian pottery to contemporary ceramics, pencil sketches to oil paintings, rocks to gems, and preserved specimens to fossils. Discover how the Museum's collection of over 10,000 objects developed over the years.

This exhibition also honors the organizations, supporters, and volunteers that have helped the Museum grow and some of the community events that have become traditions. Relive some memorable moments over the last 50 years and see how the Museum's identity has become a reflection of the Middle Georgia community. Macon Memories will be open until January 7, 2007.

Another new exhibition features images from the Christian faith. Santos are three-dimensional, carved representations of saints. Retablos are images of saints on flat panels or in enclosures. This folk art form developed from the conversion of native populations to Catholicism during European colonization of the Americas. Images of saints were used to visually reinforce devotions and prayer.

Santos and Retablos shows a collection of Puerto Rican works from 1850 to the present. They were created by artists known as santeros. A variety of their techniques and interpretations as well as sacred figures and miracles are represented. These inspirational works will be on display until December 31, 2006.

Back panel of Santos and Retablos gallery guide

The creation of Santos, three-dimensionally carved representations of saints, and retablos, religious images on flat panels, developed from the sixteenth century Spanish colonization of the Americas. In the West Indies, Mexico, New Mexico, and Central and South America, the conversion of native populations to Catholicism was a central element of colonization. Images of saints were used to visually reinforce devotions and prayer. The Puerto Rican Santos capture the essence of that island's traditional approach to the spiritual and artistic format while retaining the symbolism and elements of European iconography.

Most of the 'historic' Santos were made in the pre-industrial period from 1850 to 1940, also known as the Golden Age of the "Santos de Palo," and seem to be centralized in the rural and mountainous reaches of western Puerto Rico. From 1940 to 1960, the number of santeros, saint carvers, declined in response to changing dynamics in transportation, industrialization, and religious diversification. The ensuing years from the 1960s to the present have seen a resurgence of santeros. Some are immersed in traditional sensibilities, having felt a spiritual 'calling' to the craft. Others are inspired to create Santos as an expression of their Puerto Rican essence, merging the past with the present in an artistic rendering of a distinctive folk art form.

Santos & Retablos highlights the variety of santero families, techniques, and interpretations as well as sacred figures and miracles that are representative of Puerto Rico alone. While there are many master carvers, the Avilés, Rivera, and Orta families stand out as authentic santeros who are immersed in spiritual traditions and knowledge. Their contributions are not only to an extraordinary body of work, but to the education, training and encouragement of developing artisans, thus ensuring the future of this cultural art form. This is seen in a thematic comparison of works, especially those that are specific to Puerto Rico: the Three Kings, the Virgin of the Kings, and the Miracle of Hormigueros.

The Feast of the Three Kings or the Feast of Epiphany occurs on January 6, traditionally the day that the three wise men arrived in Bethlehem to attest to the birth of the Christ child, offering gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The Feast is not only a religious festival, but a cultural one where gifts are exchanged, families gather, and celebrations of all sorts occur. The image of the Three Kings popularly represents a human celebration as well as God's manifestation to the Gentiles.

The Virgin of the Three Kings represents a story that the Virgin Mary guided the Magi to Bethlehem. She is typically portrayed holding the Christ on her left side and often holding a star in her right hand. The kings are typically portrayed as smaller, but may be walking or riding horses.

The Miracle of Hormigueros visually describes a documented sixteenth-century story of a miraculous apparition. According to legend, a peasant, Gerardo Gonzalez, was walking on the hills in the western valley of Hormigueros when he suddenly found himself facing a charging bull. In fear, he called upon Our Lady of Montserrat. She appeared and the wild bull stopped, bent his knees, and bowed his head to the ground, thus saving the life of the peasant. In this popular veneration of sacred figures, the santeros merged the image of the fifteenth-century Virgin of Montserrat in Catalonia, Spain, with the people of Puerto Rico, in essence, confirming the role of saints as mediators. The Virgin usually has a darker complexion and is depicted either on a cloud or on rocks, holding the Christ in her lap or left hand with an orb and lily in her right. The orb symbolizes Earth while the lily represents her purity.

The Puerto Rican art of the santero has served a devotional purpose for three centuries. Today the Santos embody devotional, artistic, and cultural attributes that reflect the past but look forward to the future.


Inside panel of Santos and Retablos gallery guide

In 1996 a gift from a friend introduced me to the work of New Mexican santero Frank Brito. During a trip to my native island of Puerto Rico two years later I came upon a wooden figure of Saint Anthony Claret at a gallery in Old San Juan. The carving inspired my complete fascination with this art form and made me determined to search for contemporary Santos and their makers in Puerto Rico.

After having the distinct honor of spending time with Puerto Rican santeros, such as Ceferino Calderón and Carmelo Soto, I went beyond the lure of simple aesthetic beauty of the works and was deeply touched by the fervor and spiritual essence uniting the wooden saints and the very soul of their makers. Through this union between aesthetics and spirituality, these extraordinary santeros are able to keep the tradition of Santo making alive. Such tradition has been passed from parent to child to grandchild as in the case of the Rivera family.

In addition to my genuine appreciation for these carvings as artistically beautiful objects, spiritually, these Santos offer us a glimpse of hope and faith, strength and conviction that I hold deeply in my heart.

Héctor Puig, Collector

All works in the exhibition are on loan from the collections of Hector Puig and Tricia Sample, Gainesville, Florida.


Exhibit text panel

Santo, a Spanish word meaning "saint" refers to an image of a holy figure in Catholic traditions. In the sixteenth century, Spanish Catholic missionaries in Puerto Rico introduced prayer and devotion to saints to the native Tainos and Africans, brought to the island as slaves. Spanish colonists also brought their tradition of carving saints to Puerto Rico as well as to New Mexico, the West Indies, Mexico, Central and South America, and the Philippines. Self-taught wood carvers known as santeros created small portable figures of saints and holy subjects

The oldest Santos in Puerto Rico date to the late eighteenth century, although the surviving majority date from the late nineteenth century to the present. This tradition of religious carving originated in the rural areas of Puerto Rico where the figures served as portable, home based altarpieces in an area where churches were scarce and poor roads made it difficult to travel. Believers pray to the Santo, which is imbued with the saint's spirit, to intercede with God on their behalf.

The carved figures were revered as manifestations of the saints' spirit and as objects of devotion. Popular Puerto Rican traditions and legends influenced the style and subjects portrayed, such as The Miracle of Hormigueros, a local sixteenth century miracle.

The early santeros often supplemented their incomes with side jobs as laborers, farmers and carpenters. Most sold or bartered Santos to neighbors and devout Catholics. In 1947 the first public exhibition of Puerto Rican Santos was displayed at the University of Puerto Rico. The tradition dwindled by 1964 when only a handful of carvers were still active. Far from lost, the Santos tradition continues today with more than a hundred carvers including patriarchs Celestino Avilés, Carmelo Soto, and Domingo Orta, all represented in this exhibition. Scholars and collectors now recognize the value of Santos as important artistic, religious, and cultural objects.


(above: Santo from the exhibit Santos and Retablos)


(above: Santo from the exhibit Santos and Retablos)


(above: Santo (detail) from the exhibit Santos and Retablos)


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