10 February 2014

Holy Craft!

© Brandon Queen, 2014
One of the most disjunctive aspects of life in the Americas is the strange concept of time that comes from the combination of cultural and artistic currents from the Old World and the New. At least this was the epiphany I had visiting the exhibit Miniatures and Saints :A Selection of Works from the Teodoro Vidal Collection at the Ramón Power y Giralt House in Old San Juan. On show until 29 June, this small exhibition of miniatures (most portraits, some icons) and votive statues is the perfect introduction to Puerto Rico's traditional crafts.

Where the historical currents cross is in the iconography chosen as the vehicle of expression for these statues and statuettes. In addition to representations of the Three Wise Men (traditionally very important in Puerto Rican culture) and various saints, there were many madonnas, the most ubiquitous being Our Lady of Monserrat. A cult that originated in Alicante, Spain, the most important site for its devotees in Puerto Rico is theVatican-deisgnated Basilica Our Lady of Monserrat in Hormigueros that was constructed over the course of a year in 1775-1776. Deovtion to this manifestation of the Virgin Mary took hold on the island at the end of the 16th century, when a farmer named Gerardo González was injured by a bull and called on her to heal him. Indeed, this madonna makes up the bulk of statues in the exhibit and although each one is distinct, they are all informed by medieval Catholic iconography.

The seated Virgin holding the Christ-child is a sculptural genre known as the throne of wisdom. Of possibly very ancient roots in Mediterranean paganism, the Catholic version really took root in the Romanesque Period, just at the end of Classical Antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages. The iconography is meant to recall Mary's role as Queen of Heaven and teacher of Christ and these statues were ritually consecrated to imbue them with mystical power; thus it's no surprise that in colonial Puerto Rico it was a popular choice for domestic shrines.

Another connection to medieval iconography are the many black madonnas in the exhibit. Like the one pictured above, they are throne of wisdom madonnas whose skin has been darkened. The reasons and meanings for this tradition of black madonnas remain unsettled, and many of the proposed theories rely on apocryphal information. Possibilities range from a simple case of statues darkened by the smoke and ash of incense and candles to connections with pagan African religions. Whatever the case, it appears that it was a popular choice for portrayals of Our Lady of Monserrat in Puerto Rico.

The craft of devotional statues was one bound to family heritage and many of the artisans were trained by the previous generation. In this exhibition alone there are three different families highlighted, one of which are the Riveras. Responsible for the statue pictured above, the family tradition is practiced to this day by their descendants. The whole thing started with a man called Pancho el Santero (Pancho the Saint-Maker) in the 19th century and the rest is history, as it were.

Along with the miniatures by José Campeche, this collection of scultpures provides great insight into a traditional art form that flourished in Puerto Rico and shows how this particular aspect of craft connects centuries of Western art history in one manifestation.

The Ramón Power y Giralt House is at 155 Calle Tetuán, Old San Juan.