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.

In Santa María de la Natividad, Tamazulapan:

Christ in a Coffin
Christ in the Pretorium ("Pensive Christ")

Christ: Ecce Homo
Crucifix (1)
Crucifix (2)
The Immaculate Conception
Our Lady of Sorrows
Palm Sunday Christ
Sacred Heart of Jesus
St. Anthony of Padua
St. Isidore the Laborer
St. John the Baptist (Child)
St. Mary Magdalene
St. Michael the Archangel
St. Peter the Apostle

St. Teresa of Avila

Unidentified Saint

Other santos not photographed

Santos of the Main Altar at Santa María de la Natividad
The main
                retablo at Tamazulapan

There are a large number of santos on the retablo of the main altar. Here we describe just a few.

Unidentified Monk

The figure is tonsured and holds a book in the left hand. The right arm is crooked and resting on the right hip, with the sleeve rolled up above the elbow. The face and hands are fairly well detailed. The joints where the fingers become the back of the left hand look natural, but past that point the work becomes perfunctory. The "V" where the eyelids meet is pronounced and individualized. There is a bit of chalkiness to the skin. We presume this is not due to dust, as the church is very well kept up.

The garments seem to be polychrome. There is a great deal of gold, and it is very much a part of the patterns on the garments, but those patterns include large color masses, and there is none of the delicate cross-hatching seen in the better polychromes. The folds of the garments are understated, suggesting that they are formed from carved wood rather than stiffened cloth.

Location: Far left of lowest tier of retablo of main altar.

Media and construction: Polychrome(?) Eyes: glass.

Size: About 5½ feet (165 cm.)

Unidentified Saint

This kneeling figure is bald and wears the kind of costume that in Hollywood films would suggest a grandee of Spain: sleeves puffed at the upper arms, a long outer garment. The face is lifelike and individualized, with a natural sheen and a look expressing some sort of perplexity. The hands, however, have a rubbery, re-done look. As with the statue to the left, the garments could conceivably be polychrome, but the color masses are even larger and less distinct. There is little flair to the folds of the garments, nor much realism in such details as the lining of the cape behind the boot, or the "silver" color of the boot itself.

Location: In the lowest tier of the retablo, right of the monk described above and left of the central crucifix,.

Media and construction: Wood, gesso, paint. Eyes: glass.

Size: About 4 feet (120 cm.)


The skin is lifelike and the detailing realistic. (Note especially the muscles straining in the arms, their shape emphasized by trickles of blood that flow to the axillas from the nails in the hands.) The artist has provided enough blood flowing from the five wounds to remind the viewer of the story, but no more. As a whole, the Misericordia seems to be from a time later than the period we are studying.

Local name: El Señor de la Misericordia.

Media and construction: Wood, gesso, paint, sculpted loincloth. Eyes: closed. Hair: carved hair.

Size: About 4½ feet (135 cm.)

Comparable santos in Oaxaca: Achiutla, Santa Ana del Valle1, Santa Ana del Valle2, Santa Ana del Valle3, Cuilapan, Etla, Guelavia, Mitla, Nochixtlán, Tamazulapan1, Tamazulapan2, Teitipac1, Teitipac2, Teitipac3, Teotitlán1, Teotitlán2, Teposcolula1, Teposcolula2, Teposcolula3 (in Rosary case),  Teposcolula Convento1, Teposcolula Convento2, Tilantongo1, Tilantongo2, Tlacolula, Xoxocotlán1, Xoxocotlán2, Xoxocotlán3, Xoxocotlán4, Yanhuitlán1, Yanhuitlán2, Yanhuitlán Convento1, Yanhuitlán Convento2, Yanhuitlán Convento3, Yanhuitlán Convento4, Yanhuitlán Convento5, Yanhuitlán Ayuxi Chapel, Zimatlán.

External Links:
Wikimedia Commons: Crucifixes in Mexico
Catholic Encyclopedia: Archaeology of the Cross and Crucifix
Wikipedia: Crucifix
Christian Iconography: The Crucifixion

Christ at the Pillar

The figure is represented as fallen and prone on the ground, looking up in pain. The halo is a golden half circle set vertically behind the head. The face is of dark varnished wood, with a remarkable glow.

Basis for identification: Halo, purple robe, whipping post.

Location: In the retablo of main altar, below the crucifix described above (behind the curtain in the photo above).

Media and construction: Wood, varnish. Eyes: glass eyes. Hair: wig.

Size: about 4 feet (120 cm.) from head to toe.

Comparable santos in Oaxaca: Achiutla, Etla, Coixtlahuaca, Huitzo.

External Links:
Wikimedia Commons: Statues of Christ at the Column
Catholic Encyclopedia: Devotion to the Passion of Christ
Wikipedia: Flagellation of Christ
Christian Iconography:  Jesus is Scourged...and Displayed to the Crowd

Unidentified Nun

The habit is so ornately decorated that it is hard to tell what order it might represent. Like the other santos on the lowest tier, this figure's garments are decorated in large color-masses that do not seem consistent with true polychrome, yet the gold does not have the heavy, painted-on look of gilt.

Basis for identification: Veil, wimple/bib.

Location: Far right of lowest tier of retablo of main altar.

Media and construction: Glass eyes.

Size: About 4½ feet (135 cm.)

Unidentified Saint

The figure reads from a book held in the right hand, forming a harmonious design with the figure at the opposite end of the retablo, whose book is in the left hand. As with the other statues on the first tier, it is hard to tell whether the garments are true polychrome. The face has an acceptable sheen and seems natural and individualized – shaped to look real but not to look "shaped." The mouth is finely sculpted. The hands show the bones of the fingers well down toward the wrist.

Location: Right of the crucifix on the lowest tier of retablo of main altar.

Media and construction: Glass eyes.

Size: About 5½ feet (165 cm.)

Three other santos were observed on the left side of the three upper tiers of the main altar, one in the middle of the upper section, and three on the right side of the 3 upper tiers of main altar.

Next santo

Previous santo

Introduction to Santa María de la Navidad Tamazulapan

Note: On this site, references to the cardinal directions always assume that the main altar is at the east end of the church, the narthex or entry area at the west end, and the two walls of the nave on the north and south. (The nave is the long central section.) Actual orientations may differ.

Photo: © Dr. James Bartholomay Kiracofe, from Exploring Colonial Mexico: The Retablo of Santa Maria de la Natividad, Tamazulapan.