Maggots spill from the bare ribcage of the toothy skeleton, and the poor soul in hell, his skin blood-red, is tearing apart his own torso. These are two of the four fates of the soul, as so horrifically and magnificently crafted by whom experts believe is the 18th-century Ecuadorian sculptor, Manuel Chili, known simply as Caspicara. Kept in a private French collection for decades, the rare, polychrome wood objects are now on view at New York’s Hispanic Society, which acquired them at this year’s Spring Masters fair.
“We know of no other examples from Spain or Latin America of a series of sculptures on the fates of the soul,” Hispanic Society’s director Mitchell Codding told Hyperallergic. “The figure of the ‘Soul in Hell’ in particular is unlike any known work of Hispanic polychrome sculpture.”
Intended to make one contemplate one’s fate after death, the statues likely originally stood on a church altar for public devotion, a convent, or a private residence, Codding said. Each member of the foursome — “Death,” “Soul in Heaven,” “Soul in Purgatory,” and “Soul in Hell” measures just about six to seven inches tall, but their diminutive size does not reduce the group’s bone-chilling effect, which its artist achieved through meticulous attention to nightmarish details.
The tiny tears of the man in purgatory, who wears a black crown of thorns, glisten as if fresh; his skin hangs from the bones of his ribcage and cheekbones, making his plea for salvation all the more urgent. To his left, the figure in hell is clearly doomed, with shackles around his wrists and neck and leeches and toads crawling on his torn, bloodied skin. His red, glass eyes bulge from their sockets, and his mouth is frozen wide — with tongue extended — emitting what you imagine could only be a blood-curdling scream. The only respite from an otherwise unnerving scene arrives, of course, from the group’s outlier, “Soul in Heaven,” who boasts rosy cheeks and bright blue eyes as he prays to God. Although this figure, with its delicate and feminine features, may resemble a woman, all four in the group represent men.
Caspicara — Quechua for “wooden face” — was one of two master sculptors active in Ecuador in the 18th century, according to Codding, the other being the mestizo artist Bernardo de Legarda. “Four Fates of the Soul” aligns more closely to Caspicara’s works, “especially considering that Caspicara was famous for his careful portrayal of human anatomy in his works,” Codding said.
“Given the known works by Caspicara, both documented and attributed, the series of Souls’ would be and would have been considered one of his masterpieces. The series is so unique that it is only possible to find similarities to minor details in specific documented works by Caspicara, such as the human skull beneath the feet of Christ found on a Crucifixion group by him in the Museo de Arte Colonial, Quito … on the skeleton figure in the Hispanic Society group, the sculptor went to an uncustomary level of detail in painting the sutures of the skull, and the same is found on the [Crucifixion group skull].”
“Four Fates of the Soul” is now on view in the Hispanic Society’s main, first-floor gallery, immediately greeting visitors upon their entry. The museum has been acquiring polychrome sculpture since its founding in 1904 by Archer M. Huntington, and it now boasts one of the most impressive collections of such works. Many of these are displayed near Caspicara’s sculpture set, and while the four figures are the smallest in the gallery, they are easily the most menacing. But other works also reveal their own visions of darkness: a nearby bust of Saint Acisclus by the Andalusian sculptor Pedro de Mena sports a red slit in his neck, representing his decapitation in the third century CE. Another statue by an unknown artist depicts the archangel St. Michael slaying the devil, whose gruesome face is twisted with clear agony.
“Polychrome sculpture was the dominant form of religious sculpture in Spain and Latin America from the 16th century in to the 19th century,” Codding told Hyperallergic. “Virtually all master Hispanic sculptors produced polychrome sculpture during this period, achieving a mastery and level of sophistication and realism not found elsewhere in Europe or the Americas.”
Only in recent years have many other museums started actively acquiring polychrome sculpture. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance, purchased two incredibly expressive works by Mena last year that are now on view in its European Paintings galleries. Codding attributes the rising interest in the medium within the museum world, particularly in the United States, largely to the London National Gallery’s 2009–2010 exhibition The Sacred Made Real. Following the exhibition, he said, a number of museums had acquired works by prominent 17th century Spanish sculptures, particularly Mena and the Seville-born Luisa Roldán, known as the first female sculptor recorded in Spain.
The Hispanic Society purchased its wooden foursome from the London-based gallery Colnaghi. Prior to that, the figures had belonged to a French art dealer who recently acquired them from their longterm French owners, a family who resided in Chile in the mid-20th-century. “Four Fates of the Soul” received only a superficial cleaning after their acquisition, but Codding says the museum plans to perform minor cosmetic conservation to improve areas that have lost some of the original decoration. Still, in their current state, they clearly send across their foreboding message, reminding us of death and the three possible destinies that may await.
The Hispanic Society is located at 613 West 155th Street, in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan.