The Other New Orleans Saints
Ancient santos figures are revered both for their artistry and for their spiritual significance.
For nearly 500 years, faithful Catholics in Central America, Mexico and the Philippines have adorned their churches and homes with statues of their favorite saints, the Blessed Virgin and Christ. The ancient statues, called santos, which means “saints” in Spanish, were lovingly carved and painted by priests, church members and artisans who could not afford the elaborate baroque statues that decorated European churches.
Latin-American homes were often adorned with altars, and each altar housed statues of favorite saints. One saint might help farmers grow hearty crops; another might help keep a family healthy or cure a specific illness. In this way, santos figures became daily reminders of man’s link to God and also provided help in times when humans felt powerless.
Throughout history, man has searched for intermediaries, spirits who would help them connect with the deities. Those who carved these saintly figures took their beliefs one step further and thought that the spirits of the saints resided within the statues.
Today, these religious figures are highly prized as art forms by collectors worldwide and, to a lesser extent, provide spiritual comfort. And for two New Orleans collectors and dealers, traveling the world to find santos figures has been a 30-year passion.
“I have always been attracted to things that have a specific purpose but someone cared enough to make it beautiful,” says Bee Fitzpatrick, co-owner of Orient Expressed on Magazine Street. “Santos figures filled a religious need, but they were carved with a crude instrument, painted and loved by a family or church members.” Orient Expressed boasts one of the largest collections of santos figures in the region.
Fitzpatrick and her business partner, Dabney Jacob, both have extensive personal collections of santos figures in their elegant Garden District homes. Fitzpatrick groups nearly a dozen on the mantelpiece in her dining room, and several others have been made into lamps or dot such unexpected surfaces as the marble countertop in the master bathroom. Likewise, Jacob groups a dozen-and-a-half santos on a French console in her entrance hall and places others on countertops, tabletops and wall brackets. Three hand-carved tabernacles house santos figures and
are stacked above the large fireplace in her study.
“I saw my first santos in 1979, and in it, I saw art and spirituality,” says Jacob, a former art history teacher. “I could see God, or a spirit, in the making of each one of these figures.” Jacob considers herself very religious and says she has sought God her whole life.
Close inspection of each santos figure reveals faces of the saints that are calm and comforting. Often, hands point
to heaven or hold crosses. Symbolism abounds as saints are depicted with or in their traditional biblical or literary garb. For example, St. Joseph is often clothed in work clothes of the time or holds carpenter tools; St. Roch, patron saint of incurable illnesses, lifts his skirt to reveal a wound; St. Francis, patron saint of animals, has a bird or small animal with him.
Some of the most prized santos figures are mannequins, statues that are adorned with handmade dresses, wigs and crowns to fit the liturgical season. Their limbs are movable. Some of the more valuable mannequins might have ivory heads or wear gold crowns.
It is obvious that each santos figure tells a story and begs the questions: Who carved this? What families prayed to this statue? Were their prayers answered?
Prices of santos figures have more than tripled in the past 20 years, and supplies have become scarce. Fires and termites have destroyed many old figures, and today’s Christians don’t revere them as in the past. But still, collectors seek them for their artistry and religious significance.
“Some collectors buy these for the spiritual role a specific saint plays in his or her life,” says Fitzpatrick, adding that she is not particularly religious but loves her santos figures for the peace she feels each time she looks at one.
“Others love the creativity. We have a number of prominent interior decorators who purchase these for their clients.”
Jacob feels drawn to her santos figures on a mostly spiritual level. “Early Christians felt that saints had almost magical powers and if they prayed to their statue enough, God would answer their prayers,” she says. “When I look at the santos figures in my home, I feel sacredness in their presence.”