Catholic friars arrived in the New World in the sixteenth century with a mission to evangelise, bringing religious sculptures and images for this purpose. With time, the need to produce them locally led them to set up workshops to teach the craft to those who showed some skill.
The first Puerto Rican artisans and carvers lived away from the cities, and the roads were few and difficult. The lack of churches, priests and religious images got in the way of their worship and so they were forced to make their own saints, presumably resorting to small religious prints to learn the invocations, attributes and characteristics of each saint, as well as decimas and popular songs for inspiration.
Prints from Europe were cheap and easy to get and so the great achievement of Puerto Rican carvers were that they synthasized the printing image, bringing it to a three-dimensional form.
In the 1990s Puerto Rican carvers began to use other sources as a direct reference including computers and the Internet, as well as books of religious art, to understand and manage the iconography of saints. The traditional Puerto Rican iconography remains the main theme in the carvings of the contemporary craftsmen, although some images are used less or not at all. Today the carved saint has reached a new commercial value, being acquired as a collectible cultural property, but its original purpose as an object of devotion and evangelisation is not forgotten.
The Museo de Las Americas, located in the Bajallá in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico has an exhibit of popular arts, which features a collection of Puerto Rican folk art, comprising of carvings from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century.
Museo de Las Americas opening hours:
- Monday to Friday – 9:00 to 12:00 and 13:00 to 16:00
- Saturday – 10:00 to 17:00
- Sunday – 12:00 to 17:00
- Adults $6.00
- Children, students and adults aged over 65 $4.00
- Information signs at Museo de las Americas in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico