Saint Peter

Statues like this sculpture of Saint Peter served as an essential devotional object during the Spanish Colonial period.

Saint Peter 19th Century, Ecuador

Saint Peter was one of the twelve Apostles. He was one of the earliest followers of Christ and therefore a leader of the early Christian Church. Saint Peter was the first Bishop of Rome and is credited with establishing the Roman Church, differentiating him from the other Apostles. Saint Peter was often depicted carrying the Keys to Heaven because he was the Guardian to the Gates of Heaven. He serves as a reminder to live a holy life in order to enter into heaven. Saints are individuals judged by God to be worthy of entering the Kingdom of Heaven immediately after death. They are called the “Soldiers of God.” This sculpture is essential to the Latin American Colonial culture. It is an essential figure used by patrons for praying and asking forgiveness for their sins. This figure brought comfort and reassurance to the people of this period. Saint Peter was as an earthly visual object to serve as a connection to entering the Kingdom of Heaven. Saint Peter would have formed part of an altarpiece or would have been placed in a niche inside a church where it would have been accessible to the patrons to pray to before or after a service. This object would have been part of a set of the twelve Apostles.

The statues of the Apostles served as objects that Christians used to show their religious devotion. In particular, Saint Peter served as an entity for Christians to express their desires to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven and to also ask for forgiveness for their sins so that they may pass into heaven after they die.

Peter was a Christian martyr, crucified in Rome under the Emperor Caesar. It is generally known that he was killed upside down. He requested this because he considered himself unworthy to be crucified in the same fashion as Jesus Christ who was crucified right side up and nailed to a cross.


The official title of this work is Saint Peter Holding a Book and the Keys to the Kingdom. This type of statue is known as a santos figure which is a piece of art from one of various religious art forms found in Spain. This work was created in the nineteenth century during the Latin American Colonial period and is from the part of the Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru that is that is modern-day Ecuador. The work is made of wood, paint, gilding, and glass.

Saint Peter is standing in a contrapposto pose on a blue and green pedestal accented with small amounts of yellow. The colored brush

The contrapposto position of Saint Peter.

marks on the pedestal move in a diagonal direction which produces a echo of the sway of his robe. Saint Peter is making a particular gesture with his right hand with his thumb and forefinger touching indicating that he is preaching. Under his left arm, he is carrying a book and a set of keys. His bare feet are exposed under his elaborate robe; his left foot is flat against the pedestal while his right foot appears to be in movement, as if the saint was about to take a step. Saint Peter is wearing a blue gown with gold detailing. The area around his neck and the area around the bottom of the gown are decorated with a floral design. The rest of the garment is covered in a fishnet or scaled type of design. On top of the blue robe, Saint Peter is wearing a red sash that drapes over his left shoulder and continues down to the bottom right side of the garment; it too is decorated with a floral and fishnet pattern.

Saint Peter’s eyes are clear and his cheeks are flushed. There is a small

The Face of Saint Peter

amount of pink paint on his lower lip. He has patches of hair on the top of his head and on the sides, and he has thick grey beard with brown and blonde highlights. The statue is three dimensional and is rather small so as to fit as a part of a set inside a niche or as a part of the altar inside a church. The statue is roughly ten inches tall.

It’s important to note that Saint Peter is depicted in an old stage of his life. This indicates that he is a figure that was looked up to by the people of the church because of his wisdom and his devotion to spread the word of Christ. He was seen as an astute figure within the church. The somewhat worn down and tired look on Saint Peter’s face demonstrates that he has worked hard to dedicate his life to Christ, to the Church, and to guiding the people of the Christian faith. The book and keys Saint Peter is holding could indicate that individuals sought his approval or permission to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Santos statues pictured here are standing in a similar position to the statue of Saint Peter, in active postures with their arms outstretched and feet exposed. Both are wearing draping robes, but the clothing on these figures is far less elaborate and instead of carrying keys they hold Bibles.

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.  

The statue on the right is of Saint Thomas, another one of the twelve Apostles. This statue also would have existed as part of a set along with other apostles. This sculpture of Saint Thomas (also discussed under the heading of “Art and the Church”) is similar to Saint Peter in its stance, as he stands in a contrapposto pose with his feet exposed. There is similar attention to the details of the hair and the face. In addition, they are both are wearing robes decorated with vibrant colors with gold detailing. Lastly, both pieces would have been used as devotional objects within a church judged by their elaborate gold-leaf detailing. They differ when it comes to the upper body positioning. Saint Thomas is in more of a contemplative pose with upward gaze and his hand on his cheek while Saint Peter’s pose is more outwardly expressive with his hand outstretched as if he was speaking to an audience. The poses of the statues show the importance of capturing the essence of each saint. Saint Peter is spreading the word of Christ, a

act that reflects his devotion and purpose at a “Soldier of Heaven.”

Along with the importance of the pose, is the importance of the material of the sculptures and the artistic process used to create them. The Saint Peter statue is made of wood but is given various treatments before the final product is created. The material used to create this statue is wood, paint, gilded gold, and polychrome. Wood was used for this piece because of its beauty and strength. Santos statue started to appear around the 1500s but it was not until the 18th century that we saw such detailed statues of the saints that are similar to Saint Peter and Saint Thomas. As the churches of the New World developed in style and sophistication, artists began to incorporate sets of saints, like these, and small religious paintings into the altarpieces inside the church. In Spanish art altarpieces are known as retablos and they are located behind the altar.

The decoration in front of the altarpiece is known as the altar frontal. The purpose of the altarpieces and the statues and paintings within them is to educate the illiterate congregation.

The statues in the altarpieces were ornamented in a Spanish style called estofado. The process to create them was very painstaking. The artist would start by washing the wood with a brown pigment known as bole. The artist would then apply gold leaf and then paint the sculpture with different colors. Next, the artist etched off the paint to reveal the gold leave leaf underneath.

When the artist worked on areas depicting skin they used a process called encarnacióon. The carved wood was submerged in a white gesso that was then painted with using different flesh tones. Next, a layer of shellac was painted over the white gesso which was then sanded. Lastly, another thin layer of flesh colored paint was applied, shellacked over, and finally sanded again. This technique was repeated over again until the flesh gave off a glowing sheen that looked like skin.

Sculpture of the Resurrected Christ by Roque Lopez, 18th century

The colors used to paint statues like Saint Peter were significant because they had symbolic meaning. A few of the most important colors were blue, gold, and red. Blue represented heaven, truth, and spiritual love. Gold symbolizes celestial light, beauty, perfection, virtues, and eternity. Red is associated with emotions, royalty, divine love, faith, charity, and the Holy Spirit.

The symbolic religious representations seen through Saint Peter’s clothes and his stance show his importance and his key role within the church during Spanish Colonial times. The tedious artistic process used to create Saint Peter shows the dedication the artists felt to capture him, and all the Apostles, in their true light. Saint Peter is a representation of a devotional Spanish Colonial art object from the age of discovery in Latin America.

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.

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.


Alms Plate

      This is a nineteenth-century alms plate from Colonial Mexico in the Lowe Art Museum. Luxury silver objects were prime example of art for the Church, as they served as symbols of Christian opulence and power which was meant to inspire awe in native people and encourage their conversion to Christianity. The alms plate was a container passed around the pews to collect donations for the church and the poor during Christian masses. The material it is made from, silver, was once highly sought after and valuable in Spain, but upon the discovery of silver in the New World, silver became used even more abundantly in a wide variety of objects. That being said, the shine and patterns of the plate give it an ornate ceremonial appearance, in accordance with the other ornate objects used in Christian masses.

     This alms plate features three concentric circles which display predominantly floral patterns. The center of the circle rises up in a half dome shape, and appears to have textured silver without engravings. The middle ring is distinguished by how it is concave nature with steep, sudden slopes surrounding it, giving the plate some depth. The floral pattern of the second ring creates the impression of a six pointed flower or star, radiating out from the center of the plate. The rim rises steeply from the basin of the plate, and features a leafy pattern. These patterns are intricate, shallow engravings that add to the ornate nature of the alms plate. A sense of rotation and movement is created by having the points of the central floral pattern face outwards and the points of the leaves on the rims pointing inward. The edge of the rim is defined by a thin border of three concentric circles. The architecture of the plate works to make the centermost flower seem almost three dimensional, as its center pops protrudes from the surface while the petals and leaves are deeply set. Though the silver still retains some of its shine, it displays some tarnish due to time and handling.

     The alms plates from Spanish colonial churches represent the combination of luxury and piety. The silver for the plates became more available after obtaining the Spanish colonies, leading to many wealthy Spaniards commissioning ornate silver pieces. These alms plates were commissioned and then donated to churches as collection plates by wealthy patrons who wanted to donate some of their wealth for the good of the Church. The shape of the plate corresponds to its function, as it was deep enough to hold a considerable amount of donated coins. Examples of gardoons, an ornamental band,  can be seen on the rim of the second, floral alms plate.

     Both of these plates are ornamented in the Mudéjar style, an artistic style brought from Spain to the Americas. The Mudéjar consisted of patterns influenced by Islamic art, that included arabesques, which where floral and vegetable patterns, and geometric patterns and vaulting. The Mudéjar style refers to Spanish architecture and art that is strongly influenced by Muslim taste and influences, and the appropriation of these styles by the Spaniards reflects the cultural cooperation and religious tolerance in Spain. The second alms plate seems to have less Islamic influence and be in a more Christian style, as it features scallop shells, the symbol of Saint James who was the patron saint of Spain.  The luxurious nature of the silver plate is also representative of the Spanish desire to emulate the opulentence of ornate Moorish finery.

          As seen in the ornate style of many Christian altars and churches, the use of fine, reflective materials helped to impress on new converts the power of the Christian church and God. Just as many churches emphasized the presence of light as symbol of divinity and God’s grace, the use of reflective metals such as silver would have emphasized the light within the church. The use of such visible, grand elements within the church, rather than showing humility, would have helped to influence native individuals to convert. The use of an indigenous material, silver, with Old World religion reflects the blending of cultures that occurred when Spanish conquistadors attempted to assimilate native populations into Spanish religious doctrine.


  1. “The Lowe, Art Lab. Conquest and Coexistence: The Cultural Synthesis of Spanish Colonial Art.”, 2015,  University of Miami Lowe Art Museum.
  2. Zihrena Systems for Another Day in Paradise. “History.” History – Silver in Mexico. Accessed April 17, 2018.
  3. Centre, UNESCO World Heritage. “Mudejar Architecture of Aragon.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Accessed April 17, 2018.