Imagineria de las California

Investigating our common history along the Spanish borderlands of New Spain

This project investigates the origin, distribution, and production of Imaginería colonial. Imaginería are the painted wooden sculptural representations of the Catholic religion were made during three centuries of the Spanish colonial period in New Spain (early16th to early 19th centuries). This study focuses on the sculptures that are in the California missions. However, to fully define and to study imaginería, it is necessary to expand our work area, disregard present borders, and consider as one the whole area which today is the southwest United States and northern states of Mexico. Until 1540, Las Californias was the historical name given to this unexplored area, after this date explorers began to travel and name the new lands of the Spanish northern frontier. Hence the name "Imaginería de Las Californias."

This project not only will broaden and deepen our knowledge and understanding of this sculptural art, it will contribute to fuller understanding of Spanish and indigenous encounters on the northwestern frontiers of New Spain. It will also further our understanding of communication and transportation routes, and the economy of the Spanish colonial period. Perhaps most importantly, the project will increase understanding of living traditions common in both the United States and Mexico.

Imagineria de Las Californias
Field work


To fully define and to study imaginería, it is necessary to expand our work area beyond present-day California. Rather than national borders, we will consider as one the whole area which today is the southwest United States and northern states of Mexico.

These sculptures were known to be important symbols for the evangelization and colonization of the native population in New Spain. But very little is known of production and manufacture. For instance, how were the sculptural images supplied to the northern missions? Did increased demand, brought on by continued evangelization, influence local production? We know of several important workshops in southern New Spain; were there similar workshops in the northern frontier? To answer these questions, we will study the materials and the techniques from the simplest to the most complex image of Christ, the Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, and other saints and angels united to documentary research.

To date, the field work has involved travel to California and Mexico to examine one hundred sculptures, assess their condition, and remove minute samples. The paint, cloth, wood, and other samples are cataloged and brought back to MCI for analysis. We will compare differences and similarities of the visual appearance, materials, and techniques of the sculptures. Those in the California missions will be compared to others on the northern frontier, sites along major communication routes, and major workshop locations. Concentration will be on Chihuahua, since many missions are still intact. In addition, missionaries came from the area to serve in California.

Imaginería de Las Californias
Materials Analysis

The images at right are examples of the close examination of the decorative paint structure. Optical microscopy will be the first level of materials analysis. The analytical techniques will characterize paint pigments and binders, wood species group, textile, paper and other associated plant materials. Ultimately, the charaterizations will define origin and techniques used in different areas of the borderlands.

This projects builds upon the Smithsonian's Museum Conservation Institute's (MCI) sustained strength in the technical studies of cultural materials, and collaboration with documentary specialists. The investigation draws upon both the humanities and physical sciences through combined historical documentary research, art historical characterization and technological analysis of techniques, materials and manufacturing relationships to study the patterned variation within the group of imaginería.

Imagineria de las Californias Booklet