The Teodoro Vidal Collection | About the Collection

Religion

Catholicism in Puerto Rico

With the arrival of the Spanish colonizers, many new laws and forms of social organization were imposed upon the Taínos and, later, the enslaved Africans. One of these was Catholicism. Over the years, formal Catholic traditions sanctioned by the Church evolved alongside beliefs and practices from other cultures, especially those from Africa.

Santero Cutting Wood

Santero Cutting Wood

Postcard of a Medium

Postcard of a Medium

In its early colonial years, Puerto Rico had very few priests. This made the establishment of church ritual and other rules very difficult, especially in remote areas. Rural Puerto Ricans consequently created their own distinctive religious observances and practices. They often worshipped at home, their altars filled with santos carved by local artisans called santeros. Santeros may work individually or as a group, with workshops employing their family and apprentices. Notable santeros include the Espada family, Genaro Rivera, and the Cabán group.

Catholic Devotions

Images and objects of both Roman Catholicism and folk Catholicism are prominent in the material culture of Puerto Rico gathered in the Vidal Collection. They include santos, milagros, and rosaries, the strings of beads used in Roman Catholic prayer cycles. Santos are devotional wood carvings of saints and the Virgin Mary in her many manifestations. The carving of saints probably goes back to the 1600s, when rural populations had few priests and churches but many home altars. Ex-votos, known in Puerto Rico as milagros, are offerings to a particular saint for help in curing an ailment. Many milagros are shaped as a specific body part. Usually made of silver or tin, they can also be found in wax, gold, and other metals. Santos and milagros in the Vidal Collection date from the 1700s.

Milagros

Milagros

Saint Joseph

Saint Joseph

Los Tres Reyes Magos

Los Tres Reyes Magos (The Three Kings) have been venerated as saints in Puerto Rico for centuries. On the Catholic calendar, they are celebrated on the 6th of January. This date is when Puerto Rican children traditionally expected their Christmas gifts, not from Santa Claus, but from the Three Kings. Because of their importance, they are often shown with other saints, such as Los Tres Reyes y Las Tres Marias (The Three Kings with the Three Marys). The popular Puerto Rican story relates that the Three Kings were suitors of the Three Marys, (the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Mary of Cleofas), whom they accompanied to local festivities. This radical departure from scripture indicates the festive and social nature of Caribbean worship.

The Three Kings

The Three Kings

Children Dressed as the Three Kings

Children Dressed as the Three Kings

Our Lady of Montserrat

For more than a thousand years, Our Lady of Montserrat has been venerated in Catalonia, the northeastern region of Spain. Hidden in a cave from vandals and infidels, her statue was later found in the Montserrat mountains of Catalonia. The statue of the Virgin is said to have been found in a coal mine. What is particularly distinctive about this Madonna is that her skin and that of the Christ Child remained ""miraculously"" black after cleaning.

La Virgen de Monserrate may be the most popular of all religious figures celebrated in Puerto Rico. Many refer to her both as Montserrate and as her uniquely Puerto Rican manifestation, El Milagro de Hormigueros (The Miracle from Hormigueros). In 1599, Our Lady of Montserrat appeared to Gerardo González, a farmer, near Hormigueros, in southwestern Puerto Rico. Attacked by a bull, González invoked the name of the Virgin. Immediately, the beast fell, its legs broken and its forehead touching the ground as if in prayer. In gratitude, González built and dedicated a church to Our Lady of Montserrat. This popular image always depicts the Virgin with a man and kneeling bull.

This Madonna (term for a representation of the Virgin Mary holding her son Jesus Christ) is one example of how ideas about puertorriqueñidad are expressed. It reflects both the range of skin tones among Puerto Ricans and the broader understanding that santeros have about the cultural exchanges that have shaped the island’s history. Different santos depict the Virgin as brown, white, or achocolatá, the color of chocolate. Some show a Christ Child and Virgin in the same color, and others depict a black Virgin and white Child.

St. John Nepomucene

St. John Nepomucene

Our Lady of Montserrat

Our Lady of Montserrat

The Espadas: Santeros from San Germán

Felipe de la Espada (about 1754–1818) and his son Tiburcio (1798–1852) were the most important santeros, or sculptors of santos, in Puerto Rico during the Spanish colonial era and produced some of the earliest surviving examples of the carvings. Of ethnically mixed descent, the Espadas worked in San Germán, a cultural center on the island. They created religious images for churches and for home worship. In 1813, Bishop Juan Alejo de Arizmendi commissioned Felipe to make a Virgen de Belén (Virgin of Bethlehem). Tiburcio sculpted for Porta Coeli in San Germán and many other churches.

During lifetime of the Espadas, Puerto Rico experienced rapid economic growth, and ideas of a distinctive Puerto Rican culture began to emerge. Teodoro Vidal was the first to systematically research the lives of the Espadas, beginning in 1958.

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