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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Polychrome Sculpture in Spanish America

Painting and sculpture workshops set up to produce images for Roman Catholic worship proliferated in Spanish America from the earliest days of Christian evangelization. Imagenes, or freestanding images of Christ, saints, and the Holy Family, were believed by European missionaries to facilitate devotion and were closely patterned after Spanish models. At times the figures were dressed in actual clothes and adorned with donated jewels. In many sculptures, however, garments were carved and painted to simulate cloth.

The elaborate painted emulations of costly woven textiles called estofado (after the word estofa, meaning a type of quilted silk) involved the layering of gold or silver leaf over a gesso base, followed by an overlay of oil paint or a translucent glaze. In some regions, the paint was scratched through in a pattern to show the metallic surface below. In others, the lustrous surface was overlaid with painted gold patterns.

This production reflected the division of labor developed in Europe, with specialized guilds assigned to the carving of the wood, others to the gilding and polychromy. The selection and aging of the wood was an art in itself. Although guild regulations attempted to exclude Indians from working in these specialties, evidence shows that such rules were widely disregarded.

The Museum’s small-scale sculptures are representative of a type, most often of Nativity scenes, that proliferated throughout Latin America for use in private devotion by families or confraternities.