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People may love an artwork, but they don’t often expect it to perform miracles. However, divine intervention is exactly what “bultos” — carved wooden sculptures of Catholic saints, the Virgin Mary, and Christ — are meant for. For centuries, bultos have acted as intermediaries between believers and the sacred figures they represent. Devoted: Art and Spirituality in Mexico and New Mexico at the Dallas Museum of Art explores the sculptures’ artistic and cultural significance. The exhibition brings together 20 bultos dating from the 19th and 20th centuries, along with a selection of small oil-on-tin oil paintings commemorating personal miracles called ex-votos. Devoted presents bultos and ex-votos as objects of both artistic and cultural value, offering a glimpse at their technical and thematic variety, and at the heartfelt and unique devotional practices they inspire.
Bultos originated in the Spanish and Indigenous communities of present-day Mexico and New Mexico in the late 1700s, and continue to be a key element of worship in the region. The sculptures are made of cottonwood, aspen, cedar, and other woods, and are often painted and dressed in cloth or leather garments. Kept in church and home altars, bultos share an interactive, physical relationship with their audiences, who touch, kiss, and arrange them during religious rites. For example, the arms of “Our Father Jesus of the Nazarene,” a late 19th-century bulto by Juan Ramón Velásquez, feature moveable joints that could be repositioned to hold offerings or other props during important liturgical events like Holy Week. If a particularly crucial favor is not granted, a bulto may be turned around or removed from its altar or even destroyed.
Bultos are made by santeros, or saint makers. In the past, santeros were only men, though female santeras began to emerge in the 20th century. Traditionally, santeros are members of lay religious societies or work as sacristans, or caretakers, of the church. This is because santeros are expected to not only be skillful artisans, but also upstanding people: “For the most part, the santeros led holy lives; it was thought that the more religious the santero, the more powerful his saints,” write Chuck and Jan Rosenak in their 1998 book The Saint Makers: Contemporary Santeras y Santeros. The purpose of petitioning a bulto is to reach saints who are believed to remedy certain ailments and types of distress. But for the faithful, a bulto’s ability to deliver that protection depends on its creator’s moral compass.
Having opened nearly a year into the US coronavirus pandemic, the exhibition is also a profound reminder of the powerful relationships that can form between objects and people in times of need. “As I began working on this show last spring,” writes Dr. Mark A. Castro in the museum’s press release, “I found a great deal of comfort in these works. Some of them would have been looked to when hardships struck their communities, while others depict individuals who were miraculously saved from danger. I hope that visitors enjoy learning about them and find the same sense of solace that I did.”
Devoted: Art and Spirituality in Mexico and New Mexico continues at the Dallas Museum of Art (1717 N Harwood Street, Dallas) through January 2, 2022.