Santos in Oaxaca's Ancient Churches
A study of santos in 16th-century and other churches in Oaxaca, Mexico
By Claire and Richard Stracke
Funded by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.
San Miguel Ejutla:
Other Santos at Ejutla
| Altar to Our Lady
of Perpetual Help
Standard print set in inexpensive frame.
On the left of the print: Plaster saint, Saint Judas
Thaddeus, with a carpenter's T-square in the right hand
and a book in the left. The saint's name is molded into
the base of the statue. Another statue of a saint with a
carpenter's square is noted on our Ocotlán
"Other Santos" page.
On the right: Plaster saint, San Isidro Labrador. Short tunic, loose pants tucked to mid-calf boots, purse. Axe to the right, log behind the saint. No name in the base.
Person immersed in fire from the waist down. Not tonsured, no beard, naked, hands folded over chest and eyes looking down.
It is not uncommon to represent souls in Purgatory as
being up to the waist in fire (see this
relief from the Capilla de Animas in Compostela
and Wikimedia's Purgatory),
and that seems likely to be the intention of this statue
and possibly of the one at Ocotlán.
But Ocotlán's figure is tonsured and the hands are posed in a gesture like that of a preacher. In the church the figure was the subject of a reverential ritual on the day we visited. For these reasons it could be suggested that the Ocotlán figure is a saint in the grips of divine ecstasy. Compare it to the statue in Yanhuitlán that was identified for us as "San Nicolás" (found to the right of a statue of St. Dominic). Like the Ocotlán santo it is tonsured, naked to the waist, only half-height below the waist, but with a folded-down Franciscan habit instead of flames. This is surely St. Nicholas Factor, a Franciscan mystic and flagellant of the 16th century who was said to have reached such heights of ecstasy that he sometimes had to be doused with water.
That saints in ecstasy can be represented as on fire is
confirmed by a statue of a person in flames
which members of a local hermandad identified for us as "San
At Magdalena Jaltepec there is a pair of cardboard
cutouts of persons in flames. One is just like the
statue at Ocotlán (with a tonsure). The other is
a young woman standing in flames, shown in torso, naked,
her long golden hair covering her breast. The woman is
most likely Mary Magdalene, who is the patron saint of
the church. She is conventionally represented with long
blond hair. When portrayed in contemplation, as she
often is, her chest is typically more exposed than one
would expect in a religious image. (See this
study of her iconography.)
Thus it would appear that we are dealing with two different but similar iconographic types – souls in the fires of purgatory, and saints in the fire of ecstatic contemplation. Here in Ejutla, because of the statue's pose and the absence of tonsure, we can assume the first type. The Yanhuitlán San Nicolás and the Jaltepec Magdalene are surely of the second type, and the Ocotlán figure is perhaps more likely to be of the second type than the first.
Wood, gesso, paint. Eyes: apparently glass. Hair: carved. The statue has been heavily repainted.
Location: Niche in the baptistery, north wall of the narthex.
El Señor de la Misericordia
Wood, gesso, paint.
Very detailed, with unnaturally long arms. The head looks up. The loincloth is carved.
Location: Upper center of the retablo of the main altar.
El Señor de la Muerte
Recumbent Christ in coffi.
Location: North wall of the nave, Soledad altar, beneath the Soledad.
Tonsure, brown habit with four knotted cords and a rosary, holding the Christ Child.
Wood painted and gilded; 3'.
The face is carefully carved and extravagantly handsome. The statue has been freshly repainted.
Location: North wall of the narthex, on the altar of Our Lady of Guadalupe, left of the Virgin.
The Infant Jesus of Prague
Crown, blond curls, royal robes, marabou cape.
Wood, gesso, paint. Eyes: glass. Hair: carved.
Location: A chapel in the north wall of the nave.
Wood, gesso, paint; wig.
The hands are tied together. The statue has been repainted and wears a new wig.
Location: Lower center of the retablo of the main altar.
There are also some santos done in plaster.