The Newark Museum

Newark, NJ



Puerto Rican Santos de Palo: Sculptures Between Heaven and Earth


The exhibition entitled Puerto Rican Santos de Palo: Sculptures Between Heaven and Earth opens on April 18, 2001 at The Newark Museum. Forty-five examples of Puerto Rican painted wood sculptures, or Santos, images of saints, holy figures and legends of popular Catholicism produced between 1850 and 1940 will be on view until July 29, 2001. This exhibition is on loan from El Museo del Barrio in New York, which owns one of the finest collections of its kind in existence, and was organized by its Chief Curator, Fatima Bercht. Santos de palo, or saints made of wood, are an important folk tradition in Puerto Rico. Representing the saints, holy figures and legends of popular Catholicism, the modest size and worn appearance of these sculptures attest to their former lives in household altars, where they were displayed amidst flowers, candles and diverse family memorabilia. In front of these humble altars, people would pray to the santos, and invoke their protection and help. The santos, in their original context, were understood to be intermediaries between earth and heaven, able to communicate the requests from devotees to God.

"The Newark Museum is pleased and honored to be offering this group of exhibitions that show the creativity and richness of Latino traditions," commented the Director of The Newark Museum, Mary Sue Sweeney Price. "Puerto Rican santos are such an important symbol of that island's culture and history and are only one example of a tradition that is shared by many lands and people in the Caribbean and Latin America."

The origins of the devotion to the santos in Puerto Rico have been traced to the 16th century A.D. Spanish clergy who used polychrome sculptures and paintings as vehicles not only for converting island natives, but also for keeping the faith among their ranks. By the nineteenth century, rural self-taught artists, using simple tools and mostly homemade materials, produced the santos to serve a growing mass of local Catholic devotees. Many of these folk artists remain anonymous, yet their creations continue to speak eloquently about these men and women who, under conditions of extreme material deprevation, were able to make unique spiritual and artistic statements. Most of the santos in this exhibit were created by these traditional carvers - santeros - of rural, pre-industrial Puerto Rico. (left: The Three Kings/Los Tres Reyes; mid-late 20th century, painted wood)

For believers, santos are imbued with the saint's spirit, which can be invoked through devotion and prayer. Santos are intermediaries with the power to communicate with God on behalf of their devotees. Believers may ask a saint to help cure an illness, bring consolation, or avert a disaster. A saint's power, in turn, arises from his or her ability to perform requested favors or miracles. Devotees are responsible for keeping the saint satisfied through acts of devotion, and by publicly acknowledging any favor received.

St. Anthony of Padua/San Antonio de Padua is one of the most popular santos in this exhibition. Depicted in a Franciscan habit, carrying a book on one arm with the Infant Jesus seated on top, a flower on the other, he is showered not with gifts, like most santos, but with punishment to secure his goodwill. A favorite of unwed women, who believe he can help find a husband, St. Anthony may be turned upside down or against a corner until a devotee has her wish granted. Other favors requested include children and marriages and, within the household, much less important chores, such as finding lost items and transmitting messages among family members over long distances. (left: St. Anthony/San Antonio, 19th century, painted wood)

Our Lady of Mount Carmel/La Virgen del Carmen is a manifestation of the Virgin Mary, probably the most revered historical personage in the Roman Catholic faith. Known also as "Star of the Sea", Our Lady of Mount Carmel has assumed particular relevance to Puerto Rico and its fishermen and seafarers. Our Lady of Mount Carmel is depicted here, as usual, in a beige mantle, brown tunic, veil and a fabric scapular ornamented with stars, leaves and flowers.

Wall text from the exhibition:

Our Lady of Mount Carmel is one of the most popular manifestations of the Virgin in Puerto Rico. During Our Lady's appearance to St. Simon Stock, founder of the Carmelite order in the 13th century, she gave him a scapular, and promised that whoever in the order wore it would automatically go to heaven. (left: Our Lady of Mount Carmel/La Virgen del Carmen, painted wood)
Our Lady of Mount Carmel is represented wearing a beige-colored mantle, brown tunic, light-colored veil and a scapular that is at times decorated with stars, leaves or flowers, She also wears a white panel often decorated with stars that symbolizes the scapular, or mantle, of the Carmelite order, while the small brown object dangling from her hand is also commonly recognized as a scapular, She often carries the Infant Jesus in her arms.
St. Simon named Our Lady of Mount Carmel the Star of the Sea, which helps explain her importance
an the island of Puerto Rico. Sk is particularly celebrated in coastal towns with masses, festivals and
processions, and annually, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel is taken for a boat ride to survey the sea.

The santos referred to as The Omnipotent Hand/La Mano Poderosa symbolizes the all-powerful hand of Christ. With its stigmata, the severed hand evokes the image of Jesus' hand nailed to the cross. Each member of the Holy Family is perched on top of a finger. These fingers can vary, but they usually represent St. Anne, her husband Joachim, their daughter the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and the Infant Jesus. The Infant Jesus is typically located on the thumb, since it is the most important finger. (left: The All Powerful Hand of God/La Mano Poderosa, c, 1950, painted wood)

Other santos in this exhibition include: Nativity/Nacimiento; Our Lady of Monserrate/La Virgen de Monserrate; The Holy Trinity/La Santisima Trinidad; The Three Kings/Los Tres Reyes; Holy Child of Atocha/ Niño de Atocha; St. Francis of Assisi/San Francisco de Asis, and St. Rita/Santa Rita.

Dr. Nii Quarcoopome, Curator of Africa, the Americas and the Pacific for The Newark Museum, has been the Project Director for this exhibition. He holds Masters Degrees in Art History and African Area Studies and a Ph.D. in Art History from the University of California, Los Angeles. He received his B.A. in Archaeology at the University of Ghana, Legon. Dr. Quarcoopome returned to the United States to join The Newark Museum staff in February 2000 following the fulfillment of a Fulbright Fellowship in Ghana.

During the run of Puerto Rican Santos de Palo, Sculptures Between Heaven and Earth, there will be corollary exhibitions, as well as a schedule of public programs relating to the works on view.


Corollary Exhibitions


Searching for Miracles: Photographs by Hector Mendez Caratini

Accompanying the exhibition, Puerto Rican Santos de Palo: Sculptures Between Heaven and Earth, there will be photographs taken by noted Puerto Rican photographer Hector Mendez Caratini during the past three decades. The subject matter of these photographs is diverse: annual pilgrimages and processions, devotees of the Virgin, patron saint festivals (fiestas patronales), home altars and the shared space of sacred images and everyday objects. More importantly, they document, in Mendez Caratini's words, "mankind's mystical faith in supernatural forces and their inherent powers to cure mundane ailments." (left: Religious Altar, Ponce, Puerto Rico, 1983)

These eloquent photographs, filled with empathy and artistry, document the various influences that have helped shape Puerto Rican culture and society, including its four centuries of Spanish colonial rule and what Mendez Caratini calls its "Catholic soul." They show how its people have successfully assimilated other ethnic traditions and belief systems, evolving a culture of profound spirituality and creativity. (left: Good Friday, San Germain, Puerto Rico, 1981)

Mendez Caratini explains his passion: "I am driven to explore the diverse facets of humanity's eternal quest for divine intervention."


Cultural Crossings IV: Marking Life's Passages

In the fourth exhibition of the successful "Cultural Crossings" series initiated by The Newark Museum in 1997, guest curator Susana Torruella Leval, Director of New York's El Museo del Barrio, has selected the objects using rites of passage as the organizing theme. Leval is interested in the way in which people of all cultures, at certain junctures in their lives, have to cross thresholds to move on to the next stage. And in this process, boundaries between youth and adulthood, the family versus the world, the familiar versus the unknown, and the individual versus the collective are all met and crossed. Discussing the selection process, Ms. Leval commented, "I chose objects that marked life's transitions: the birth of a child; a young woman entering society; a young man's initiation; a man mourning his beloved wife; the last voyage to the cemetery." Objects in this exhibition include: an exquisite lace fan with mother-of-pearl inlay from France, polychrome wood figures from Korea; an array of Japanese and Himalayan wood festival masks; and unusual African and Native American musical instruments.

Susana Torruella Leval has been Director of New York's El Museo del Barrio since 1994 and has guided its transformation into one of the nation's leading Latin American museums. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Ms. Torruella Leval received a B.A. in Art History from Manhattanville College, an M.A. from New York University's Institute of Fine Arts and an Honorary Doctorate from Pace University in May 2000. She is currently an officer on the board of the American Association of Museums and The Association of Art Museum Directors, and serves on the Boards of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the Municipal Arts Society. Ms. Torruella Leval is also a member of the Overseers' Committee to Visit the Museums at Harvard College and of the Visiting Committee of the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Ms. Torruella Leval has been organizing exhibitions of Puerto Rican, Latino and Latin American contemporary art for over thirty years.

At The Newark Museum, Ms. Leval worked with curators of four departments - Africa, the Americas and the Pacific, Decorative Arts, American Art and Asian Collections - in the process of developing the current "Cultural Crossings" exhibition and its ideas. The exhibition will feature commentary by Ms. Leval as well as historical and ethnographic information prepared by each area specialist.

Santos from the Newark Museum Collection

This collection of sixteen santos, with an installation continuing through January, 2002, was a gift to The Newark Museum from Mr. and Mrs. Walter Fillin in 1974. All originated in Puerto Rico between 1850 and 1940 and represent fine examples of this artistic heritage.

Also included in this installation are five posters which are on loan from The Newark Public Library. They are tributes to accomplished santeros as well as a celebration of santos as an important artistic tradition.

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