This sculpture depicts Saint Thomas, one of the Twelve Apostles. It originates from Ecuador, dating back to the nineteenth century. This piece would have formed part of the elaborate decoration in a colonial church, and displayed the Church’s power and authority in Colonial America. These depictions of the saint were valued for both their exquisite technique and their ability to present the Bible’s teachings in a compelling manner. It is significant for its is juxtaposition of the wealth manifested through the estofado technique, and the aspects of humility and devotion present in the figure of Saint Thomas himself.
This freestanding sculpture illustrates one apostle of a larger apostolado set. Saint Thomas is depicted wearing blue and green robes, which are adorned with gold detailing. The interior of the blue cloak is also gold. The colors are all very vibrant and opaque, which makes the material appear expensive. In contrast, this sculpture depicts Saint Thomas’s bare feet sticking out from underneath his robes. The absence of his shoes are unexpected given his elaborate attire. In one hand, Saint Thomas is carrying a carpenter’s square, indicating his profession as a builder and his role as the patron saint of architects.His other hand is resting on his face, in a manner that suggests deep thought. The expression on his face mirrors this notion, as he appears to be pensive.
These details in the sculpture of Saint Thomas are rendered in a realistic, three-dimensional style. The use of lifelike colors are what truly creates the naturalistic feeling of the work. The artist played with the colors of the material in St. Thomas’s clothing, using dark blue, green, and gold to make the work look luxurious and rich. The metallic sheen in the colors resemble silk and conveys the saint’s high status as a heavenly figure. The technique used in this sculpture is called estofado. In this technique, the wooden sculpture is first covered in gold leaf, and is sealed by a layer of paint. Fine lines are scratched on the surface, allowing the metal to peak through. This technique became an important economic export of Ecuador. Many pieces with the estofado technique were sent to Europe and other areas of Colonial America. Another example of estofado is seen in the following sculpture of Saint Peter. This sculpture is of a similar size and style to the work of Saint Thomas. It is possible that they were within the same apostolado set.
This luxurious technique contrasts the humility and holiness of Saint Thomas. Saint Thomas’s bare feet are visible from underneath the garments. This is evident of Saint Thomas living in solidarity with the poor, an important teaching of Christianity. It indicates his humility, in that he, as a saint, is not above the most unfortunate of our society. His holiness is also portrayed through the contemplative expression of his face. This can reflect the introspection that followers of Christ may experience when thinking of him and God. The composition of the statue itself is relatively simple, which is in great contrast to the style of the piece.
This sculpture of Saint Thomas would have been a part of a set featuring all twelve Apostles, called an apostolado. Since the set would contain many figures, it would most likely be viewed by a large congregation from a church. It was seen as a sign of religious authority for a church to have a set of all twelve Apostles available. These sculptures were elaborately decorated and often stood on altars in colonial churches. Since they were often viewed from a distance, it was important that these sculptural groups be highly ornamented to allow the individuals of the congregation to see them and learn the teachings of the Bible. During this time, the average person was not literate, so most were unable to read biblical texts. These detailed statues illustrated the stories of these saints.
In a larger context, the apostolado serve a purpose within the period of the Counter-Reformation. The Counter-Reformation, or Catholic Revival, was a response to the Protestant Reformation. It was a way of protecting the long-standing influence of the Catholic Church by emphasizing Catholic principles and transforming both local religious and broader political integrations. Modern day Catholic priests, bishops, and the general hierarchy can be linked all the way back to the original apostles. This chain of history is integral to how the Church functions, even today. The creation of this art is a reaction against Protestantism, and a reminder to the historically backed, religious authority of the Catholic Church. Protestants strictly avoid the worship of any iconography that are not Christ nor God Themselves, while Catholics would have believed in the referential way in which apostles symbolized the Church hierarchy and authority. What the Catholics believed set them apart and made them superior was the use of beautiful, dignified, didactic, and emotional images. If contextualized within a largely Catholic Roman empire, they instead serve as reminders to the followers to embrace the devotion the saints had towards Christ.
Such apostle groups worked together as a set, but believers could pray to particular apostles for their individual needs. Prayers were directed towards Saint Thomas because he served as a reminder that individuals who were not perfect could still be good Christians. He was a close follower of Christ, despite initially doubting his resurrection. Saint Thomas is known as “Doubting Thomas” because he refused to believe that Christ had returned following his death. When placed among the other apostles, he is able to reclaim his faith and serve the word of God once more. This may indicate the value of community in generating and maintaining personal faith. People may have prayed to Saint Thomas in reference to his doubt of Christ’s resurrection, and pray for reassurance or confidence in their faith if they are ever feeling doubtful of the power of Christ.
Saint Thomas’s devotion to Christ is displayed through his composition. His bare feet are a sign of his humility, which is a quality that the Bible urges Christians to pursue. Saint Thomas’s holiness contrasts the decadence of his clothing. This display of wealth is due to the artist’ implementation of the estofado technique. This technique was both an important artistic style and economic export of Ecuador. The style tied together individual apostle sculptures within an apostolado. This set of apostles was a sign of the Church’s wealth, and thus power in Colonial America.
Below, you can interact with a 3D model of St. Thomas. Click on the numbers to learn more about his features, and scroll to rotate the image.
Denver Art Museum. “Spanish Colonial Art.” Accessed April 16, 2018. https://denverartmuseum.org/collections/spanish-colonial-art.
Jensen, Robin Margaret. Understanding Early Christian Art. 2000.
Most, Glenn. Doubting Thomas. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005.
Navarro, José Gabriel. “Ecuadorian Sculpture.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 3, no. 9 (1945): 209-13.
The Met Museum. “Polychrome Sculpture in Spanish America.” Accessed April 16, 2018. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/spsc/hd_spsc.htm.