Santos bultos: Wooden religious statues
in the church, Trampos, New Mexico, 1943
Image source: Library of Congress
In the southwestern U.S. where a strong Hispanic influence is part of the history and culture, you might see a santo bulto in a special niche in a home or church. A santo bulto is a three-dimensional folk-art religious statue or carving. It may depict Christ, the Virgin, one of the saints, or perhaps a Biblical event, such as the Resurrection.
In the image above, the santo bulto stands in the background at left. Traditionally, the statue might be dressed in new clothing when a special petition was made or a special occasion in the church year was celebrated.
The history of these figurines is interwoven with the Catholic practice of using articles of devotion. Due to the isolation of the Spanish colonies in the Southwest, many religious artworks were produced locally rather than imported.
The woodcarvers used the wood they had at hand -- typically, cottonwood, aspen, or pine. As with the Hopi kachina dolls, the figurines were often carved from cottonwood root.
Cottonwood root was preferred because it was light in weight, lacked a center core, didn't split easily when dry, and was easy to carve. The preferred method was to carve the object from a single block, rather than joining several pieces.
The style of the carvings was loosely based upon religious art objects in local churches, but each santero developed his own style. Most of the works were unsigned, in respect and reverence for the Great Creator, so the identity of many santeros is unknown.
Whatever native wood was used, the completed santo bulto was sealed with gesso, a mixture of native gypsum and glue. Then it was painted as the santero desired.
The Northern New Mexico Virtual Archive contains a very interesting and informative history of the santos bultos and their carvers.
An interesting story about an elderly lady who took care of the santos bultos at a little village church can be read in the American Life Histories section of the Library of Congress.