It is not too difficult to see why Santos are sought after by the faithful and collectors alike. On one level, they serve to inspire and impress upon the believer, the timeless human conditions of suffering, love, faith, compassion, and sacrifice, attributed to the represented Santo. Made from natural and, sometimes, rich materials that may include ivory, gold, and other fineries, they can also be appreciated as objects of art and beauty. Even with a range in style and craftsmanship that may go from high art to completely lacking in refinement, they all seem to project a strength of spirit and character that hold a universal appeal.
Joseph Williams, a collector of religious art in Oakland, California, recalls he was not yet a Christian when he was first moved by the active and open gestures of the Santos. In contrast to the more passive and introspective demeanor of the Buddhist figures of his early upbringing, Santos appeared much more inviting and seemed to radiate a true holiness. “Wow! Here are these are earthly things that just exude divinity,” he affirms.
If that were not enough, Santos also coveted for their historic value or as fine antiques. Indeed, Santos bring a quiet dignity and nobility to some of the most sophisticated interiors, no matter what the style.
Strictly speaking, the word Santo, plural Santos, is a Spanish word, meaning saint. In the present context, the term Santos is taken from the phrase Santos de bulto (Saint Sculptures), and serves to differentiate three dimensional sculptures from other religious representations such as painting, and other two-dimensional imagery. Though by now, in the antiques market, Santos is a blanket term used to describe a number of plaster, carved stone, wood or ivory figures of heavenly personages, including relief wooden sculptures, and other forms.
In the United States, the collecting trend for Santos is well established. Collectors have, for some time, become acquainted with Spanish colonial works from the Americas, particularly those from Mexico, Guatemala, and even New Mexico, and many are familiar with the Santos of Puerto Rico, Peru, and Brazil.
The Richard Gervais Collection, with its unique emphasis on Asia, features unexpected finds from various countries, including, Vietnam, Philippines, and India. To the uninitiated, it may be initially surprising to stand face-to-face with Asian Santos. We have been taught to think of Christianity from a purely western perspective, a predisposition that dates back to the Great schism of the 11th century. Yet, curiously enough, Bethlehem and Golgotha are in Asia and thus, an Asian connection remains.
Evangelization into Asia began as early as the 1st century, shortly after the crucifixion. Tradition tells of a reluctant Thomas the Apostle, being charged with the task of bringing the Christian teachings to India and Iran—a belief that is still a source of pride among Indian Christians. By the 7th century, Nestorians had converted the Mongols in China, and other efforts by Jesuits, Dominicans, and Franciscans followed over time. The Portuguese expansion introduced Christianity to Indonesia, Malaysia, Siam, Burma, and neighboring countries by 1511, followed by the French, the Dutch, and the Spanish in other regions.
Friars often taught the newly converted with printed imagery, and, as churches were built, they commissioned religious art from Europe. Thereafter, this responsibility fell on the adept and skilled Asian artisans, who stepped in to fill a new demand for Santos for church and personal use, and in the case of ivory, for international trade. Japanese, Chinese, and Philippine carvers supplied precious Christian ivory carvings as far as Europe and Mexico in the New World.
A typical Santo was carved in wood, and then finished with gesso (a mixture of gypsum and hide glue) and paint. There are countless variations and techniques, depending on its final use and production value. The finest examples may receive glass eyes, an estofado or gold leaf finish, and ivory faces and hands that achieved a refined and other-worldly flesh quality. In other instances, figures had an armature or bastidor for a body, which would be covered by fine robes or vestments that may be decorated with gold thread, silver, pearls, and precious or semi-precious stones.
Ted Cohen, another Bay Area avid collector of folk art from around the globe, is less concerned with the perceived or real monetary value of the Santos in his collection. In his eyes, the appeal of a Santo emerges rather in the unadorned frankness of the piece. “My Santos can be almost crude… primitive, but they seem to carry a more personal meaning,” he says, referring to that fact that many of the Santos in his collection were probably made for worship in home altars. “I love the patina on the old ones,” he noted.