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Making a Spanish polychrome sculpture: Saint Ginés de la Jara

Conservators, scientists, and art historians at the J. Paul Getty Museum undertook a multifaceted approach to investigate the design and construction process of the polychrome sculpture Saint Ginés de la Jara (shown below), unlocking secrets of its fascinating art historical past.
Saint Ginés de La Jara, about 1692, Luisa Roldán, sculptor, and Tomás de los Arcos, polychromer. Polychromed wood with glass eyes; 69 1/4 inches high x 36 3/16 inches wide x 29 1/8 inches deep (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 85.SD.161)

The remarkable realism of Saint Ginés

Created by sculptor Luisa Roldán (1652–1706) and polychromer (painter) Tomás de los Arcos (born 1661), Saint Ginés de la Jara is a life-sized and highly realistic three-dimensional figure carved out of wood. It is regarded as one of the finest remaining examples of 17th-century Spanish polychrome sculpture.
Saint Ginés de La Jara (detail), about 1692, Luisa Roldán, sculptor, and Tomás de los Arcos, polychromer. Polychromed wood with glass eyes; 69 1/4 inches high x 36 3/16 inches wide x 29 1/8 inches deep (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 85.SD.161)
Most likely made for the Spanish Royal Court, the sculpture portrays Saint Ginés in a moment of spiritual contemplation with his right hand outstretched and his gaze directed upward. His right foot extends partially from under his robe, suggesting that he is stepping forward. The figure’s left hand was designed to clasp a walking staff, which is missing. He is dressed in a robe elaborately adorned with a gold floral pattern.
The intricate pattern and highly realistic details on the figure’s face (left) and hands were all created through the process of polychroming, or the decoration of a surface in many colors. Overall, Saint Ginés de la Jara is stunningly lifelike in appearance. His active pose enhances the sensation of motion, and the delicacy of the carving combined with the expertly applied details in his face, hair, skin, and clothes make for an overwhelming impression of liveliness.
### Understanding the innovative sculpting techniques of Luisa Roldán
Getty conservators started from the inside out to determine how Saint Ginés was made. By examining and x-raying the sculpture, they found that Luisa Roldán constructed it by stacking two hollow boxes and attaching smaller panels of wood to the sides (shown below), which was not typical for sculptures of the period.
View from below revealing hollow box construction of Saint Ginés de La Jara, about 1692, Luisa Roldán, sculptor, and Tomás de los Arcos, polychromer. Polychromed wood with glass eyes; 69 1/4 inches high x 36 3/16 inches wide x 29 1/8 inches deep (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 85.SD.161)
Roldán’s innovation allowed for the sculpture to remain in excellent condition much longer than other works from the era that were typically constructed from a solid block of wood and subsequently prone to cracking. Smaller and more detailed parts of the sculpture like the feet, hands, and face were carved separately and attached with a combination of wooden dowels and nails.
A composited x-ray image of Saint Ginés de La Jara, about 1692, Luisa Roldán, sculptor, and Tomás de los Arcos, polychromer. Polychromed wood with glass eyes; 69 1/4 inches high x 36 3/16 inches wide x 29 1/8 inches deep (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 85.SD.161)
Roldán’s sculpture incorporates three different kinds of wood: Scots pine, Mediterranean cypress, and Spanish cedar. Spanish cedar was considered the most precious of the three, a rare and expensive wood that was imported from Spanish colonies in the Americas. The cedar was reserved for the parts most difficult to carve: the hands. Roldán’s choice to use Spanish cedar highlights the importance of the work at the time.
Another important detail that enhances the realism of the work is the addition of colored glass eyes, which are so finely detailed that they include small red veins around the irises. X-rays of the sculpture (left) reveal the glass eyes were made differently than those in other sculptures of the period. Getty historians have proposed they were perhaps Venetian glass pieces made originally for use as human prostheses.

The incredible art of polychrome painting

There is also much to be learned from the painting on Saint Ginés de la Jara. Getty researchers determined how Tomás de los Arcos undertook a painstaking process to both protect the wood’s surface and ensure the realism of the final painting. The artist began by coating the entire sculpture with a type of glue to cure and preserve it, and then applied layers of gesso (yeso grueso and yeso mate), which is a binding agent that is also applied to canvas before painting to provide an even and protected surface for paint. The hands, feet, and head were then finished with layers of oil paint—the encarnaciones technique of painting flesh tones (shown below).
A reproduction of the hand of Saint Ginés de la Jara, hand-painted to illustrate the encarnaciones technique. Viewed from left to right:
(l) glue on wood, (2) yeso grueso and yeso mate, (3) base coat of oil paint, (4) translucent coat of oil paint, (5) oil paint highlights. Carving by Marcelo Santos; encarnaciones by Sylvana Barrett (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 85.SD.161)

The finest finishing details

For the robes, de los Arcos undertook an additional series of steps applying and then reducing materials using the estofado technique whereby the artist scratched through a paint layer to reveal another layer of contrasting color or material below (see panel below). To begin this process the artist would first apply bole to the finished wooden sculpture. Bole is a traditional clay material that could be sanded down and burnished with a stone to produce an attractive, smooth surface. Sheets of gold leaf would then be applied over the bole, followed by two layers of grey-and-brown tempera paint to create color variation on the surface of the gold leaf. De los Arcos would then carefully draw a pattern onto the darkened surface, and systematically scratch surface layers away to reveal the brilliant gold material beneath it. The work was finished by making small indentations inside the gold pattern to give it a greater appearance of depth and create more variation in the surface.
A panel illustrating the estofado technique. Viewed from top to bottom:
(l) glue on wood, (2) yeso grueso, (3) yeso mate, (4) bole, (5) burnished gold leaf, (6) gray tempera paint, (7) brown tempera paint, (8) design punched onto the surface, (9) outlines scratched away, (10) scratching completed, punch marks applied, and black-and-white "shadows" and "highlights" applied. Carving by Marcelo Santos, estofado by Sylvana Barrett (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 85.SD.161)
The elaborate floral patterns on the robes of _Saint Ginés de la Jara_incorporate the French fleur-de-lis, a stylized three-petal flower (shown below). This design was most likely used because Saint Ginés was believed to be of French ancestry. According to one legend, Saint Ginés was a nephew of Charlemagne and the son of the medieval hero Rolan, a monarch of France.
A detail of Saint Ginés de la Jara' s robes showing the fleur-de-lis design (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 85.SD.161)
Getty researchers determined that de los Arcos used a stenciling process to apply the pattern because it was done with incredible consistency. They also noted the carefully planned arrangement of the pattern (shown below), which alternates on the different panels of the robe to create an overall balance and rhythm to the work.
Each of the three estofado designs repeats in regular patterns across the sculpture Saint Ginés de la Jara. Illustration by Jane Bassett (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 85.SD.161)

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Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user christian lewis
    What do you really need to learn for woodworking\carpentry cas that is the trade I would like to go In to
    (3 votes)
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  • eggleston orange style avatar for user Snugglebug
    How long did it take to make this sculpture?
    (3 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      You'll need to name a starting point if you want this answered, because the sculpture was made of wood. So, do we start from when the trees started growing, or from when they were hewn (without knowledge that they would be used for the sculpture), or when the idea for the sculpture was arrived at, or when the wood was selected, or when someone started cutting it into boards? It might be easier to answer your "how long" question if you stated a beginning point, like,
      "How long after the materials were all in the artist's workshop did it take to make this sculpture?" Something like that.
      (0 votes)