Polychrome Sculpture in Spanish America

See works of art
  • Mary (from a nativity)
  • Christ crucified (from a Calvary group)
  • Standing Angel
  • Kneeling woman with a bowl (from a nativity)
  • Mary (from a nativity)
  • Virgin of Quito

Works of Art (7)


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.

Johanna Hecht
Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2003


Hecht, Johanna. “Polychrome Sculpture in Spanish America.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/spsc/hd_spsc.htm (October 2003)

Further Reading

Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries. Introduction by Octavio Paz. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1990. See on MetPublications

Additional Essays by Johanna Hecht