The Iconography of Puerto Rican Santos Doreen M. Colón Camacho
Director, Department of Education, Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico
San Juan, Puerto Rico
One of the more interesting topics in exploring santos is their iconography, the study of the symbols that make up an image or an ensemble of images. An iconographic study identifies symbolic forms such as attributes and signs such as clothing, posture, and context, which establish the identity, context, and history of a santo. Iconographic studies can establish direct links between the ways santos were venerated and represented in Europe and in Puerto Rico, where iconographic motifs were not merely repeated: the island’s people proceeded to create their own interpretations.
The Holy Trinity

In Puerto Rican santos, the Holy Trinity is represented in various ways. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit may be presented as identical figures standing on a common horizontal base, or in a triangular composition as a white dove between two male figures. The Father may be bearded and the Son beardless, or the Father’s beard may be white, the Son’s dark. The dove of the Holy Spirit may be mounted above a column, on a piece of wire, or on a cross interposed between the two male figures.

The Virgin

The varied representations of the Virgin can be divided into three main iconographic motifs: the Virgin enthroned, the standing Virgin with Child, and the standing Virgin without Child. The favorite Puerto Rican images are the Virgin of Monserrat, the Virgin of Hormigueros, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the Virgin of the Three Kings, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Our Lady of Candlemas, Our Lady of the Pillar, Our Lady of the Rosary, Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, and the Immaculate Conception.

Saint Anthony of Padua

In Puerto Rico, Saint Anthony (early 13th century) is taken to be the patron of lost objects and of things that are hoped for. The color of his habit may vary from light blue, to dark blue, green, brown, or black. Historian Arturo Dávila explains that the Franciscans who came to the island in the 17th century wore blue habits in honor of the Immaculate Mother, but later adopted brown habits. Saint Anthony is the patron saint of the towns of Ceiba, Dorado, Guayama, and Isabela.

Saint Barbara

Persecuted for her conversion to Christianity, Barbara was imprisoned by her father in a tower. Upon her release, her father was killed by lightning. Accordingly, Saint Barbara protects against sudden death by lightning, cannon fire, or mine collapses, and she became the patron saint of miners and gunners. Her attribute is a tower. Legends of Barbara date from the 7th century, but she was removed from the liturgical calendar in 1969.

Saint Blaise

Saint Blaise (4th century), who is shown with a small beard and mustache, usually carries a pastoral staff and wears a red and yellow miter or a red tippet (or scarf) instead of a miter, a white alb, a black cassock, and black shoes. Teodoro Vidal confirms that devotion to Saint Blaise as the patron saint for afflictions of the throat observed in Puerto Rico. The town of Coamo, founded in 1579 with the name of San Blas de Illesca, is the only town on the island that celebrates patron saint festivities in honor of this saint.

Saint Joseph

In Puerto Rico, Saint Joseph is considered the patron saint of carpenters and of those on their deathbed. Saint Joseph is mostly represented as a devotional figure, relatively young, with a beard and long hair, dressed in a tunic, and holding the child Jesus and a flowered staff. Saint Joseph is the patron saint of the towns of Aibonito, Camuy, Gurabo, Lares, Luquillo, and Peñuelas.

Saint Raymond Nonnatus

Saint Raymond (13th century) is considered the patron and protector of pregnant women, women in labor, midwives, and the newborn, and has enjoyed great devotion on the island. He is depicted in ecclesiastical vestments, with a red tippet (stole) adorned with golden trimmings on the collar and purls (looped edges) that simulate lace. Underneath he wears a white rochet (surplice), also with golden trimmings on the sleeves and simulated lace in the lower part. He also wears a red alb (vestment) and black shoes, which are simulated through half-moon incisions in the lower part of the alb. The town of Juana Díaz always dedicates its festivities to Saint Raymond Nonnatus.

The Three Kings

Devotion to the Three Kings in Puerto Rico came about through several centuries of popularity of the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th. Traditionally, the Three Kings are portrayed to reflect diverse origins, from different points on earth. In Europe, the Three Kings were shown as being of different races: black (Balthazar), white (Melchior), and oriental (Gaspar). They were also seen as symbols for the three ages of humanity: youth (Gaspar), adulthood (Balthazar), and old age (Melchior). It is interesting to find that in Puerto Rican tradition, Melchior is the “Moorish” king, or the one with a dark complexion, while Balthazar has white hair and beard, and Gaspar is a beardless youth.

The numerous carvings of the Three Kings fall into two strongly devotional iconographic types and a third more narrative, historical type. The devotional compositions present the Three Kings standing or on horseback, facing the devotee. The figures are placed horizontally on a common base, shoulder to shoulder, and they may or may not be differentiated by physical traits such as skin color or beards, their dress, or their gifts. The narrative, historical composition also depicts the Three Kings on horseback, but sideways in three-quarter profile, looking toward the star of Bethlehem, to which the leading king points with his right hand.

Today, the celebration of Three Kings Day is a feast day for Puerto Rican reaffirmation, also commemorated in New York City, Chicago, Hawaii, and Alaska, where there are large numbers of Puerto Ricans. The Three Kings, transformed from their original religious meaning, personify the principal ethnic components of Puerto Rican identity: Indian, African, and European.

Saint Rita of Cassia

In Puerto Rico and in other countries, Saint Rita (1381–1457) enjoys great devotion and is considered the patron saint and advocate of marriages and of difficult cases, due to the patience with which she bore her husband’s ill treatment until his death. She is depicted with a drop of blood on her forehead from an unhealed wound made by a crown of thorns while she was at prayer before a crucifix. Another miracle tells of the apparition of a rose or figs in her garden, in the middle of winter, on the day she died.

Saint Roch

Saint Roch, a French nobleman, gave away his wealth and set out on a pilgrimage in the 1300s, healing plague victims by making the sign of the cross. Iconographically, he is dressed as a nobleman, but his broad-rimmed hat is trimmed with keys (attributes of a pilgrim to Rome) and the Holy Face (attribute of a pilgrim to Jerusalem). When Saint Roch himself was stricken with plague, a dog brought him food; therefore his personal attribute is a dog with bread in its mouth. Occasionally the angel who miraculously healed him is depicted. In Puerto Rico, he wears a tunic raised to show his left knee—a reference to an ulcer on his leg, caused by the plague.

Saint Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins

The Christian Ursula and her retinue were killed by the arrows of Huns in the year 451—an improbable Medieval legend seemingly unlinked to Puerto Rico. But, according to the scholar Yvonne Lange, devotion to Saint Ursula developed when the English attacked the island in April 1797. The Bishop of San Juan organized a procession dedicated to her. At night, men, women, and children, all holding candles, moved through the streets. The English, seeing the lights, thought that the Spanish had received reinforcements and abandoned trying to take the city. Saint Ursula holds the palm of martyrdom in some cases, as her only attribute, although in the European tradition she is depicted with an arrow. Now removed from the liturgical calendar, she was considered the patron saint of chastity, marriage, and teachers, and was invoked in times of plague.

Anima Sola

The unique and curious motif of the "Anima Sola” represents a particularly interesting devotion. The souls in Purgatory are personified through the image of semi-naked long-haired woman enveloped in flames and posed in prayer. The flames, carved in relief, seem to form a skirt around her lower body, while her hair or flames cover her naked upper body. Even though she may be considered a sinner, she is taken as an intercessor for devotees.

The Three Marys

The Three Marys—Mary Magdalene, Mary of Cleophas, and the Blessed Virgin Mary—have been collectively venerated in Puerto Rico. They are usually represented as three identical female figures placed horizontally on a common base. Puerto Rican devotees have associated this theme with the theme of the Three Kings, which is an anachronism, both in religious and historical terms.