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Smithsonian Exhibition of Santos Combines Science and Art


September 20, 2000
Copyright © 2000 All Rights Reserved.

PHOTO: Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe: Our Lady of Guadalupe Overview, Anita Romero Jones, 1978, New Mexico, Bulto, Collection of The Albuquerque Museum (Museum Purchase, National Endowment for the Arts Purchase Grant)

PHOTO: Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe: Our Lady of Guadalupe Overview, Antonio Avilés, 1996, Puerto Rico, Bulto, Fundación Luis A. Ferré, Inc., Ponce, Puerto Rico

Science and art come together in the Smithsonian’s "Santos: Substance and Soul" a recently opened exhibition designed to give museum-goers a rare insight into santo making -— the painted wood carvings of saints that represent one of the oldest living traditions of religious devotion practiced by Hispanics.

The Smithsonian Center for Material Research (SCMRE) put together the exhibition that highlights not only the artistry of the carvings but enriches our knowledge of the works through their examination by chemical analysis, X-ray imaging, microscopy and other techniques.

"We usually don’t do exhibitions," said senior paintings conservator Jia-sun Tsang, who was also the curator of "Santos." "But we wanted to show the contributions science can make to art. For example, it can tell us what type of wood or paint was used for the carvings."

It can also give us a glimpse into the traditions of the societies in which the works were produced. For instance, Tsang and her colleagues found that many of the Puerto Rican santos had several layers of paint. They discovered that on the island, houses were often painted in preparation for holidays like Christmas, and saints would also get a fresh coat of paint. It was an insight that even some people from the local community had not realized.

Museum visitors can expect to have an equally enriching educational and aesthetic experience. To this end, the curators have put together 40 pieces that will focus on the cultural traditions of two of the largest Latino populations in the United States: New Mexico and Puerto Rico.

"We tried to highlight two vibrant traditions of saint making -- the modern and the traditional," said Tsang, who added the exhibit also includes santos from Mexico, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil and the Philippines.

PHOTO: Pastor con Cordero: Shepherd with Lamb, 18th century, Ecuador, Bulto, Stapleton Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

In fact, the pieces range from what Tsang called the "hyperrealism" and "baroque" Spanish colonial style to the modern and very distinct visual styles of Puerto Rico and New Mexico.

"I hope people who see the exhibition come away with a better understanding of this wonderful artistic tradition. They can also learn more about themselves and how the carvings really reflect the worshippers," Tsang said.

In addition to being a centuries-old tradition, the santos, which come from home altars and family chapels, speak to the independent and sometimes rebellious ways in which people worshipped.

"People from rural areas couldn’t always go to church, so they worshipped at home," said Tsang. "At home, they could arrange the saints however they wanted."

In addition to viewing the beautiful pieces, Tsang said people may find out a few surprising things: like the fact that the Virgin of Guadalupe is actually the patron saint of Ponce, Puerto Rico.

But as is the case with many regional artists, Ponce’s versions of the Virgin, with darker features, look much more Puerto Rican than Mexican.

The travelling exhibition will feature many bilingual elements, including an interactive website, a program cataloga, brochures, handouts and demonstrations by master santeros, and an educational program for children.

Tour Schedule:

September 17, 2000 - March 31, 2001 Smithsonian Institution Arts and Industries Building Washington, DC

June 22, 2001 - November 4, 2001 National Hispanic Cultural Center Albuquerque, New Mexico

December 14, 2001 - June 9, 2002 Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico San Juan, Puerto Rico

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