The art of wood carving is one of Puerto Rico’s most fascinating traditions. It is one that is charged with spirituality, while holding its own as an art form. There are many interesting similarities between the tradition and history of Puerto Rican santeros or imagineros and those of Guatemala and New Mexico. The tradition of wood carving still survives in these places by reinventing itself while holding onto basic concepts and execution.
The invasion of Christianity into the new world in the sixteenth century resulted in the construction of an estimated 70,000 churches and at least 500 monasteries within the first 100 years of colonization. Along with new churches and new doctrines, the Spanish also brought their sacred objects such as rosaries, crucifixes, and images of saints.
The inaccessibility of churches to geographically isolated country folk slowed the spread of the new faith in Puerto Rico. One solution to this problem was the construction of home altars which provided a private and intimate place of worship without unreasonable travel. The fulfillment of matters of faith provided the grounds from which the people of Puerto Rico learned and embraced the art of carving saints.
The art of the santo in Puerto Rico began in the sixteenth century and flourished in the rural towns along the central mountains (Cordillera Central) and southwestern towns such as Cabo Rojo, San Germán, Sabana Grande, and Hormigueros. Following the traditional popular customs of Spain, a variety of saints were designated as patrons for the island and its newly created towns. In exchange for his or her good graces, the saint–represented by an icon bearing its particular symbols–would be placed in a special place in the humble home of the believer. The santo would be honored with offerings of fresh flowers, candles, and milagros (small metal charms of ailing body parts). The Puerto Rican santero embraced the craft of wood carving with a great sense of purpose, religious devotion, and the firm belief that his work was inspired by a higher power.
By the 19th century there was a decline in use of the santos de palo. Many country folk abandoned the Catholic faith to join the new Protestant sects which considered the keeping of saints an “idolatric cult.” Another damaging stigma was that the craft was considered a step backwards in artistic matters. The icons, once pivotal in the propagation of the faith were then dismissed as “rustic pieces of wood.” Some priests removed them from their altars and replaced them with imported plaster ones. This contributed to the near eradication of the craft. Entrepreneurial santeros responded to the decline in demand by the church by traveling through the remote, mountainous regions of the island to sell custom-made saints. They also scaled down their work for worship at home.
An important element of the carving of santos was the wood itself. Puerto Rico provided an abundance of materials for the santero. One of the most popular woods was cedar (cedro) because of its resistance to termites, its softness (making it easy to work with), and its fragrance. The wood carver used the resources at his doorstep, extracting colors from natural materials found in the soil, rocks, and vegetation.
The santero’s humanity and his deeply felt sense of Christianity were reflected in his work and his life in the community. Most of these artisans (who earned their living as sawyers and carpenters), were of limited financial means, so they exchanged work for food or even shelter. Carving was a means for survival–not a personal artistic expression.
Today, there has been a renewed interest in the art. Public opinion has been divided as to whether this craft has become yet another tradition tainted by commercialism. Some maintain that even the most contemporary santero is inspired by the same religious fervor as earlier santeros. When observing the miracle of bringing new life to a small piece of cedro wood, it seems evident that divine intervention has taken place. It is also interesting to note a relatively recent trend that has developed within the wood carving community. More and more women have found a means of artistic expression as well as a way of complementing their family income through the carving of santos. An article published by Myriam D. Vargas in Boletín de Artes Populares 1996, reports on this new course, “…In the past ten years [we] have observed a renaissance in the carving of wood saints in Puerto Rico. There are many youngsters who have been motivated to continue this ancient trade. [It] calls attention above all to the number of women who have made inroads into this art traditionally relegated to males…”
Today, the santos de palo have surpassed their role as rustic, religious images to become positive symbols of a rich cultural heritage and identity.
–Excerpt from the book Imaginero by Edwin Fontánez, © Exit Studio 2000. Text may not be reproduced in whole or in part without written permission from Exit Studio.