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Warrior of the Church: St. James on Horseback

Overview of Artwork :

The conquistadors believed St. James to be their protector in their colonization of the New World. This six-foot sculpture portrays the saint victorious in combat. The piece can basically be divided into the sculptures of the saint and of the horse.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, Mexican artists created a wide array of objects for use in the Roman Catholic Church. Paintings and sculptures of Mary, Christ, and saints; silver chalices and lecterns; embroidered textiles; objects made from ceramics and feathers all played a role in religious observance. Spanish, Moorish, Asian, and Pre-Columbian art influenced the sumptuous, elaborate, richly decorated Mexican baroque style these objects display.


Sculptures, such as Saint James on Horseback, were sometimes made for wealthy households containing a small chapel. Sculptures, like their European counterparts, contained elaborate gold leaf details. Often times depictions of the Saints and the Virgin were shown dressed in elaborate clothing, indicative of the clothing preferred by the New Spaniards. Churches and other ecclesiastical buildings were so elaborately decorated that at one time it was determined that objects for use in worship should only be made of precious metals.

Technique or Process

Initially New Spaniards wanted their statues painted like Roman sculptures, but instead many of them employed the estofado technique. With the Estofado technique a sculpted figure is covered entirely in gold lead except for the hands, feet, and head. It is then overpainted, and decorative patterns are scratched into the surface to reveal the underlying gilt. Although much of the gold remained hidden under the paint layer, the use of gilding showed the artist spared no expense when creating images of the Saints and lends the figures an air of unreality and spirituality.

Cultural Roots

Patron Saint of Spain and Chile, Saint James was the first Apostle (Greek for messenger) to be martyred. Here we see him on horseback, depicted with a dark beard and carrying a sword, the instrument of his martyrdom. It is believed that Saint James appeared and fought beside the Spaniards at one of the battles against the Moors. Because of this episode, in Spanish versions, Saint James is typically shown on horseback, trampling a Moor underfoot.

When Western religion came to the New World, a large number of saints were worshipped in New Spain and depicted in various media. As far back as the sixteenth century, daily exposure to these figures' pictures and Catholic rhetoric helped the New Spaniards begin to identify with the saints and, because of their distinctive attire and appearance, these images almost became stereotypical. For centuries, Spaniards regarded St. James as their protector in battle. The saint was credited with leading the Spanish forces to victory against the Moors and in the conquest of Mexico. Spanish soldiers brought the veneration of Saint James to the Americas.

Here we see St. James depicted as a warrior wearing a floppy hat and armor. St. James was introduced to New Spain at the outset of the Spanish Conquest. The conquistadors were devoted to St. James and believed him to be the protector of their military invasion of the New World. Look at his pose and expression. Why was it important for the Spanish to bring their Saints and their religion to the New World?


  • The saint's face and hair are meticulously carved with a great attention paid to detail.
  • The sword, along with the stirrups and bridles, is made from wrought iron and adds to the realism of the piece.
  • The armor is decorated with a plant motif. The artist used estofado, a technique by which the entire figure is gilded, over-painted, and then engraved to reveal the underlying gold leaf.
  • In contrast to the intricate carving on the saint, the horse is sculpted in a simplified style.
  • The base on which the horse's legs rest on may have at one time been the figure of a Moor or Indian trampled by St. James in battle.

Work of Art: Saint James on Horseback

Subject Area: Art

Class Time: Two to Three Classes (45 minute periods)

Lesson Objectives:

The students will be able to:

  • Discuss the life and significance of Saint James;
  • Identify details and features of New Spanish sculpture that make it unique.


Image of Saint James on Horseback


Examining the Work of Art

1. Take a careful look at Saint James on Horseback and make an inventory list of everything that you see. Begin with the most obvious components, such as St. James and the horse, and move to the specifics, such as the sword and the horse's eyelashes.

2. Discuss the choices the artist made with creating this sculpture. Questions could include:

  • What colors did the artist use?
  • What sections of the sculpture contain the most detailed decorative elements?
  • Saint James is considered the protector in battles. How would you describe Saint James' pose and expression? Describe the pose and expression of the horse.

3. Read the background information on Saint James, and then discuss the following:.

  • Why do you think Saint James is so important to the Spanish and the New Spaniards?
  • Does Saint James look like a fierce warrior? Why or why not?
  • The artist captured the Saint with his head upright, sword poised and ready, and hand on the horses bridle ready to move. What do you think Saint James is about to do?
  • Note the elaborate armor the Saint is wearing. What does it look like it is made of? Do you think every soldier wore elaborate armor such as this? Why or why not?

4. What can we learn about soldiers on horseback by studying this sculpture?

Art Activity

According to legend, Saint James' horse should be shown trampling a Moor. Instead, he is shown here posed and ready for fighting.

Create a drawing depicting what Saint James might be doing just one minute after this sculpture. Is he preparing for battle? Is he heading home?

Be sure to include as much detail in your drawing as possible - such as the detail on the armor and the expressions of the horse and rider.

Extension Activities:

Social Studies:

Research both the Spanish Conquest of New Spain and the Christian struggle to remove the Moors from Spain. What do these two conflicts have in common? What role did religion and the Saints play in helping these people through a difficult time?


Measure the proportion of both the figure of Saint James and the figure of the horse. (Measure the length of head, torso, and limbs.) Are both of these figures in proportion? Are they in proportion to one another?


This particular sculpture is made of estofado or gilded wood. Research the trees
and types of wood that would have been available to a New Spanish woodcarver. What wood do you think might have been used here? Keep in mind the wood must be soft enough to be able to carve into and yet hard enough to withstand cracks.

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