Threads of Time: Tradition and Change in Indigenous American Textiles

Effigy of Saint Joseph

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Effigy of Saint Joseph


During the Spanish Conquest of modern-day Guatemala, missionaries formed cofradías (religious confraternities) for the indigenous people in an effort to cement the Catholic Church in every community. Cofradía members were responsible for the rituals surrounding a particular santo/a.They celebrated festive saints’ days and maintained figural representations of their particular saint, usually made of painted wood.

Unlike similar figures in Spain, the Maya understood their santos to be alive and cofradía members fed and clothed them. Many santos, like this example, have moveable joints, for variable display in scenes such as the Holy Family or the Nativity. These jointed figures, particularly those with beards, most commonly represent Jesus or Saint Joseph; since in the Americas saints were venerated as much or more than Jesus himself, this one is likely Joseph. The Spanish made Joseph the patron saint of the Americas in 1555, making the analogy of themselves as the benign stepfather to the “Indians.” This example dates from the late 19th century, according to its overall style, fine painting, and glass eyes.

Geographic Area

Central America, Guatemala




19th century


Cedar wood (Meliaceae Cedrela), glass, pigment

Credit Line

Bright Collection of Guatemalan Textiles

Accession Number


Photo Credit

Photos by Michael McKelvey, 2017

Technical Notes

This saint figure was carved from wood and assembled with pegs, mortis & tenon joins, as well as hinge joints that enable the arms and legs to be positioned and adjusted. Dr. Alexander Wiedenhoeft of the USDA Center for Wood Anatomy Research identified a small sample of wood removed from a hip joint as a species of Cedrela. The face has delicate carved features, inlaid glass eyes, and finely painted details, such as eyelashes and cuticles. Conservator Renée Stein carefully reduced grime from the painted surfaces using water-based cleaning solutions. In some areas, the wood had shrunken and pulled away from the paint layers, causing cracks, unstable flakes, and losses. Within one area of loss on the figure’s right forearm, a finely woven textile appears beneath the paint layers, perhaps bridging joins in the wood as was typical on paintings made on wood panels. Stein consolidated the vulnerable areas by allowing small drops of adhesive to wick into cracks and losses. She then filled selected losses with a soft putty mixed from cellulose powder and adhesive. These fills were then painted to match surrounding surfaces in order to achieve visual unity.

For more conservation information, please see The Threads of Time Conservation Project

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