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Course: Art of the Americas to World War I > Unit 4

Lesson 2: Viceroyalty of New Spain

Saintly violence? Santiago in the Americas

Santiago on Horseback, 16th century, polychromed and gilded wood (Museo Franz Mayer, Mexico City, Mexico) A conversation between Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris, Steven Zucker, and Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(jazzy music) - [Beth] We're here in the Franz Mayer Museum in Mexico City looking at a large polychrome wood sculpture of Saint James on a horse. - [Lauren] Saint James or Santiago in Spanish is a really important saint on the Iberian Peninsula and then brought here to the Americas early on after the Spanish Conquest in 1521. - [Beth] He's associated with helping the Spanish conquer, whether they were conquering the Muslims, who were living on the Iberian Peninsula, who were living in what is today Spain, or whether they were conquering the indigenous populations in what is today Mexico. - [Lauren] What we're seeing here in the sculpture is Saint James on his steed, who's rearing upward and he's got his right arm raised with a sword as if he's about to attack. The horse's hooves are actually on top of what is today a wooden box that would have been decorated with either Muslims or Amerindian population. - [Beth] He's wearing a gold uniform created in a technique called estofado. - [Lauren] You'd have one artist who would carve the wood, another who would paint him to enliven him, and then you'd have another artist who would apply gold leaf to the sculpture, then paint over it, usually with some type of tempera or egg yolk-based paint and then would use a stylus to peel off that paint and reveal the gold. - [Beth] He is so real, in part because he's painted, polychromed, he's got many colors, but also he's multimedia. He's got the leather of the reins, he's got horse's hair for his mane, he's got the metal from his sword, and so he's incredibly realistic and dramatic. - [Lauren] This would have been even more dramatic when you had the figures that the horse was trampling, because Saint James was known as Santiago Matamoros, Saint James the Moor Slayer, meaning he was killing Muslims. In the Americas, he becomes Santiago Mataindios, Saint James the Indian Slayer. - [Beth] So this is not to say that Saint James himself was there slaying Moors or slaying indigenous populations here in Mexico, it's to say that he was, in a way, their patron saint. He helped them carry out their mission. - [Lauren] This is one reason why we see him in a lot of different media, not only polychromed wooden sculpture but also stone reliefs on church facades, in paintings, or wooden reliefs on church altarpieces. He's an incredibly popular saint beginning in the 16th century and that endures throughout the duration of the viceroyalties. - [Beth] And polychrome sculpture was incredibly popular both in New Spain and the Iberian Peninsula. Sometimes we think about sculpture as pure white marble, and it can be disconcerting to come across these incredibly realistic polychrome sculpture. - [Lauren] And many of these objects would have also been used during processions because wood is much lighter than, say, marble or bronze, it was a natural material to use for processional sculpture. Objects like this would have been used during, say, the saint's feast day or for other types of festivities. - [Beth] I wish I could have seen him in one of those. (jazzy music)