Repairing antique Mexican religious art – Santos & Bultos

San Jose reliquary

At Artistry in Glass, we are occasionally privileged to restore objects of great value and antiquity. Here we had the opportunity to stabilize a historic 18th-century Mexican bulto of San José y Niño, purchased in Mexico City and brought in by a Tucson customer.

What is a bulto?

A bulto (originally revulto) is a three-dimensional folk-art statue of a saint, carved in wood and polychrome, made in the southwestern U.S. and Latin America in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Bultos originated in the Hispanic and Native American communities of Mexico and New Mexico in the late 1700s, and continue to be a key element of worship in the region. The sculptures are made of cottonwood, aspen, cedar, and other woods, and are often painted and dressed in cloth or leather garments.

Bultos (also called Santos) depict Christ, the Virgin, saints, or events like the crucifixion or resurrection. They are displayed in special niches in a church or a home where they share an intimate, interactive, relationship with their audiences. They act as intermediaries between believers and the sacred figures they represent.

Artistry in Glass restores a historic bulto

Our client purchased this valuable antique in Mexico City and received it with interesting damage to the face/head.

On close examination, we found that the break in the head was part of the original craftsmanship. The artist had split the carved head down along the natural grain of the wood in order to hollow out the eye sockets from the inside and inset glass eyes.

San Jose (Saint Joseph)
Carving of Saint Joseph (San José y Niño) has an original separation in the head to allow for the hollowing out of the eye sockets. Note that the figure of Jesus that sits on Joseph’s left arm has been removed for safety during the restoration. Also not shown is the two-part plinth to which the carving is attached by means of a modern dowel.

Vibration during transportation caused the head to separate along the original glued surface to reveal the interior workmanship:

Adhesive on antique reliquary
The original adhesive (now flaking) is still visible as well as opalescent (pearly white) organic material (right) – presumably applied to provide an internal reflection for the glass eyes.
Interior of reliquary
Detail of the interior showing hollowed-out eye sockets. The glass eyes are painted on the inside in white (sclera) and black (iris).
San Jose reliquary
Exterior detail of painted glass eye

Glass was produced in Colonial Mexico, in Puebla, Jalisco, and Mexico City so it seems likely that these tiny eyes are made from locally-produced glass. The material is translucent and is decorated with white (sclera) and black (iris). A milky, organic material has been applied to the interior, opposite the eye sockets, to provide internal reflection and give the eyes depth and sparkle.

Age of the bulto

18th & 19th century reliquaries
Antique bultos Left late 18th C. Locale: Puebla, Mexico polychrome wood sculpture with painted gesso surface. Glass eyes. – Center Pedro Antonio Fresquís (1785-1831) San José y Niño carved and painted wood, Right 1780’s Mexican Puebla “scourged Christ” carved wood gesso & polychrome with glass eyes.

The San José y Niño is a very rare item and, by comparison with similar examples, is likely to be from the period 1780 -1820. Artistry in Glass is not qualified to give a firm date but our associated experts feel that bright red and green paint together with the gilding are likely to be later additions (painting touch-ups) because typical 18th-century painting was more subdued in tone and had a matte rather than a glossy finish.

Restoration of an antique crucifix bulto

Mexico and New Mexico also have a long tradition of large, articulated, and often bloody Crucifixion bultos. A santero usually carves a bulto with a knife or other wood carving tools, and then covers it with gesso, a mixture of native gypsum and glue, to prepare it for painting.

Our customer brought in this early 19th-century folk-art bulto for stabilization. As usual with antiques, the duty of the conservator is to maintain the original patina of the item and prevent further deterioration – without affecting the surface or re-painting.

Detail of crucifix bulto
Folk-art carving features oversized hands – characteristic of the naive, non-realistic style. Painting of cross is shows fading appropriate to age. Red blood stains are believed to have been repainted.

We make three small steel pins to re-attach the figure to the cross.

INRI stands for Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews
Etymology of the INRI inscription

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Contemporary artists especially in the Santa Fe area of New Mexico are still creating bultos for the tourist trade and modern manufacturers make a wide variety:

Handmade Crucifix Wall Cross

The crucifix continues to be a cherished object for home devotion as the principal symbol of the Christian religion in Catholic, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox churches.

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I was an exploration geologist and University Professor working in Botswana, Zambia, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, Portugal, and other countries before opening Artistry in Glass in 1986. In my more than 35 years of experience, I have brought my technical abilities as a scientist to the trade of glasswork. During this time I have become an industry expert in glass and glass-related skills. Watch out for special insider tips developed from my detailed knowledge of the glass business.

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