La Mano Poderosa

La Mano Poderosa, also known as the Powerful Hand, represents a significant element of colonial life in parts of the Americas. The symbol of the hand of Christ was introduced by the Spanish missionaries and has important spiritual value among the faithful colonials who valued rich and robust Catholic traditions. The image was designed to convert the native peoples, as Catholics attempted to spread Christianity throughout the Americas. The image symbolizes an idealized family structure, and what families in the Colonial America’s aspired to be. It was also significant because of the juxtaposition between the godly aspects of Christ evident through the tools of torture which represent his sacrifice, as well as his more human side through his family.

This is an image of the Powerful Hand. Created using oil on tin, and dates back to Mexico in the 19th century.

This image of the Powerful Hand was made in Mexico in the 19th century and was created using oil paint on tin. It was created to serve as a religious work of art for a more domestic setting. The small scale of the image prevents it from being capable of viewed by large crowds in a church; it could be best viewed by a small group of people, perhaps a family. The image shows the power of Christ, and reminds the viewers of his strength through the symbols of torture scattered across the bottom. The hand of Christ is a protective symbol, that may have been designed to protect the family and the home in which it was placed. The instruments of torture associated with the death of Christ were powerful objects that reminded viewers of the suffering of Christ to protect humanity from its sins. The figures in the highest register of the painting serve as hope for salvation and welcome them into heaven among the Holy Family.

The image of the Powerful Hand uses three horizontal registers to separate the content of the piece. The painting shows a flock of sheep, a blood-filled chalice, and five figures dressed in garb that hints at their biblical nature, such as a nun’s shroud and a shepherd’s robes. This also indicates a culture of humility and simultaneously represents the Catholic desire for functionality and modesty. In the upper portion, the five figures shown represent the extended Holy Family, placed in the clouds to represent their status as holy beings. The central figure is Jesus, Mary and her mother Anna to his left, and Joseph-holding the flowering staff, a symbol of his marriage to Mary- and Mary’s father Joachim to Christ’s right. At the bottom of the frame, seven lambs are shown drinking from a chalice, surrounded by dark instruments of torture. In the central register, the hand of Christ is depicted. The hand is a representation of Christ’s suffering and the blood pouring from its center flows down into a Holy Grail, which feeds the lambs below.

An image of the hand of Jesus, with members of the Holy Family standing on each of his fingertips.
In this depiction of La Mano Poderosa, the figures are situated on the fingertips of the hand of Christ, but still represented among the clouds as the Holy Family. Image courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

The style is simple, with a basic composition and emphasis on strong colors to create visual interest. In terms of style, all five figures are painted in the same way, as they each have very round, cartoonish faces, with simple expressions, and can only be differentiated based on the symbolic objects they hold. Christian texts did not have many physical descriptions of these religious figures, so the artist may have chosen to paint their faces simply, almost generically, because there were no details to incorporate into the painting. The family members are depicted using bright colors that supplement the hand as the focal point of the image. The Powerful Hand conveys a somber and ominous tone in the lower register through the use of dark colors. On the ground there are a variety of symbols representing the torture devices that were used against Christ during the Crucifixion, including the crown of thorns and palm leaves. The surrounding lambs represent the followers of Christ that were saved and nourished by the blood shed from his Crucifixion, as well as a representation of the Eucharist. The lambs are painted in a very light white, that makes them almost transparent, and sharply contrasts with the dark coloration of the torture devices that surround them. The artist likely used translucent lambs to emphasize the blood’s brightness and add an unreal and dreamlike aspect to the image.

The image incorporates relevant Bible aspects such as Holy Family, torture instruments and Christ’s hand. The figures upon the highest register of the painting serve as hope for salvation and portray a sense of welcoming into heaven from the members of the Holy Family.  The ideal family is represented through the Holy Family and serves as a model which native peoples in the Americas were encouraged to emulate. They are a religious and benevolent family, always in the service of God and serve as symbols of hope for salvation into heaven. The extended holy family are depicted as simple and humble people, shepherds and priests, who follow the teachings of the Bible and dedicate themselves to being good Christians. In addition to their piety, good Catholics are modest and fearful of God. Their fear leads them to avoid sinning in order to gain entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. Individuals looking at the image would be reminded of the power of Christ and communicate with Him through prayer.

An image of a sculpted hand, with carved figures who stand at the top of each fingertip.
The artist of this work elected to minimize the detailing to the  features of the Holy Family, reducing them to anthropomorphic figures. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Teodoro Vidal Collection.

Christianity and successful missionary attempts of conversion had a strong impact upon the people and culture in the Colonies of Central and Southern America. People expressed their devotion through adherence to core principles and by following the Holy Family as the ideal family structure.In the process of using visual propaganda in order to persuade the natives, this artwork was used to remind the populations of the sacrifices of Christ as a savior, as well as appeal to the emotional aspects of a family.

Works Cited

Burkhart, L. M., & Gasco, J. (2016). The colonial period in Mesoamerica. In The Legacy of Mesoamerica (pp. 200-239). Routledge.

Lobo, S., Talbot, S., & Carlston, T. M. (2016). Native American voices. Routledge.

Matovina, T., & Poyo, G. E. (Eds.). (2015). ¡ Presente!: US Latino Catholics from Colonial Origins to the Present. Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Nunn, N., Akyeampong, E., Bates, R., & Robinson, J. A. (2014). Gender and missionary influence in colonial Africa. African development in historical perspective.

Saint Thomas

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. This is a sculpture of St. Thomas, one of the apostles. It is from Ecuador in the 19th century, and would have been placed in a church.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 image is of St. Peter the apostle dates back to Ecuador in the 19th century.
This sculpture of St. Peter is believed to have been part of the same apostolado as the St. Thomas sculpture.

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.

An apostolado from the Monasterio de Santo Domingo de Silos featured in Museo de Burgos in Burgos, Spain. Photo by José Luis Filpo Cabana.

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.  

This is a portal featuring an apostolado on the Iglesia de San Juan Bautista in Moarves de Ojeda. Photo by José Luis Filpo Cabana.

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.

 

 

Works Cited

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.