Santos: Sacred Sculptures...

Religious Significance and Art Form

By: Carly Hill, Staff Writer • May 22, 2012 • 0 Comments

“…flowing carved vestments, the reverse inset glass eyes, the ivory age lines, the cracked polychrome paint, the exposed gesso, the worm holes, the aging cracked wood or the bent silver crown laden with patina…” – Description of Santos courtesy of

Elmer Bustos, of, said this, “I am not only interested in their religious significance, but also to their art form. It is very interesting to know that each and everyone one of them is unique. The artist is hardly known. The style will depend on the region and personal style.  The test of time and the material used will give it its own character. Finding out where they came from, who made them and who their original owners are is really a challenge. These were formerly venerated images and are holy to their previous owners and are then to be respected as such.”

We look through faded black and white pictures of our revered ancestors, fastened to browned scrap book pages to reflect on their legacy and honor them.  Only a few centuries ago, the Roman Catholics kept Santos around as a way of remembering ,honoring, (and in some cases, worshipping) their ancestors, the Saints.

The term “Santos” specifically refers to the sculptures produced in the Spanish colonies of the Americas, Caribbean, and elsewhere.  Very popular in Spanish colonies, they were once found in most every Roman Catholic home and church.  Many people would dress their Santos in elaborate fabric clothing.

The term “Santos” can also be used to describe the similar retablos, or two dimensional Catholic devotional paintings of the Saints which were produced in Mexico and in the Southwestern United States.  In this region of Mexico and the Southwestern U.S., Santos art is often referred to as “bultos.”

Catholics use statues, Santos, paintings, and other artistic devises to remember the saints depicted – much like we use photographs today.  They also use these statues as teaching tools for when they teach about the Saints – especially to the illiterate.  In the same way that Protestant Christians set up Nativity Scenes in December to commemorate the event of the birth of the Messiah, Catholics use Santos to commemorate different events and to honor the Saints.

The making of Santos or Saints was big in Europe in the 18t and 19th century, but it started as early as the 13th century.  Europe was the center of Christianity during the Colonial Period and the religion and the small saint figurines quickly spread to the conquered New World countries.   Hundreds of years ago, in Roman Catholic churches stood statues of the Saints.  Long before these figurines were produced in bulk and readily available, priests or artisans for church were carving smaller versions of these religious statues.

The earliest Santos sculptures were carved in wood or ivory, but later, they were also made from terracotta, bisque, chalk, various metals, and porcelain.  Santos style has changed through the centuries.  Santos sculptures produced between the 13th and 17th century are usually very primitive, but some are intricately carved – wearing loose clothing and long curly hair.  Santos sculptures that exist today from this time period are mere fragments or larger pieces of the original sculptures.

The most common Santos sculptures available today are from the 18th and 19th century.  Santos sculptures from this era are in good shape for how old they are because their owners handled them with such care and devotion.  Many were covered in glass or wooden alters and were considered holy.  Most Santos sculptures you’ll find are carved in wood.  It is extremely rare to find ivory carved Santos, as almost all are privately owned.

The 18th century Santos pictured above is from Whisnant Galleries. For more info. click here


The Santos sculpture pictured here is a 20th century sculpture with an ivory face and is available from Eclectic Architecturals right here!  To view other Santos sculptures from Latique, click here.

*Check out for more information about Santos!