In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Polychrome Sculpture in Early Modern Spain

  • Introduction
  • General Survey
  • Period Survey, 1400–1500
  • Period Survey, 1500–1600
  • Period Survey, 1600–1700
  • Patronage, Collecting, Artists, and Ideas
  • Conservation, Polychromy, Materials, and Techniques
  • Catalogues

Art History Polychrome Sculpture in Early Modern Spain
Ilenia Colón Mendoza
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0152


Polychrome sculpture forms a cornerstone of the religious art produced in Spain in the early modern period. During the 16th century a single piece of wood was often used and during the 17th century wood sections were joined together with nails or dowels. The carved wood was covered by layers of gesso which was then painted. For areas of flesh the paint is done in encarnaciones or flesh tones in gloss or matte finish. For the dressed portions of the sculpture, bole was used to hold gold or silver leaf in place. On other occasions the artist tried to imitate quilted silk known as estofa through the estofado technique where paint was placed on top of the gold or silver leaf and the desired pattern was scratched out or punched. The use of glue-sized fabric or tela encolada was also prevelent and as the 17th century progressed the use of postizos such as cork, bull’s horn, and glass eyes increased. Glass and crystal were used to make eyes and teardrops, the polychrome cork for open wounds, human parts or animal bones were frequently used for making teeth and nails, human or animal hair for eyelashes and hair, and gold, silver, and gemstones to make jewelry. Some sculptures done in the round also had movable parts such as arms or legs and others could be dressed with fabric. The sculptures that are adorned with fabric are known as imagenes de vestir. Besides single figures for procession or worship large altarpieces were also produced in Spain. The retablo incorporates an architectural framework with sculpture and painting that can be traced from the Gothic to the late 17th century. The hierarchy of the sculpture workshop was divided into masters, officials, and apprentices. This hierarchy as well as the labor they practiced was often flexible. For example, we know of officials that were considered masters and of masters that completed all parts of the labor. In general, the labor in the sculpture workshop was divided into specialists such as entallador (carver specialized in decorative motifs), ensamblador (assemblyman), aparejador (preparer), dorador (guilder), estofador (decoration imitating textiles), encarnadores (painters of flesh tones), and lapidarios (gemworkers). Sculptors and painters collaborated on the production of these works. With time, sculptors took examinations in both disciplines to achieve complete control of their creations.

Primary Sources

These sources were written in the early modern period by sculptors, painters, architects, and travelers. They help contextualize and reconstruct the period historically. Primary sources of the period mostly focus on the production of painting. However, Pacheco 1649 discusses painting techniques used in sculpture. Carducho 1633 and Martínez 2008 are also important sources for the painting medium. Other treatises on sculpture and architecture include Arphe y Villafañe 1585. For artists biographies Ceán Bermúdez 1965 and Palomino de Castro y Velasco 1715 are essential. Bosarte 1804 and Ponz 1772–1794 describe their travels and artworks seen during their visits.

  • Arphe y Villafañe, Juan de. De Varia Conmensvración para la Escvltvra y Architectvra. Seville, Spain: Imprenta de Andrea Pisco, 1585.

    This work includes four books divided by subject. Book 1 discusses geometry and gnomics. Book 2 is about human anatomy. Book 3 includes illustrations and descriptions of animals and birds. Book 4 focuses on architecture and related subjects. Included are woodcuts. Of particular importance to sculpture is the section about the proportions of the body in Book 1. Available online.

  • Bosarte, Isidoro. Viaje artístico a varios pueblos de España con el juicio de las tres Nobles Artes que en ellos existen, y épocas a que pertenecen. Madrid, Spain: La Imprenta Real, 1804.

    Art historian Bosarte continued the work of Ponz and included the artworks in the cities of Segovia, Valladolid, and Burgos. The descriptions are organized first by city and then in chronological order. Available online.

  • Carducho, Vicente. Diálogos de la pintura, su defensa, origen, essencia, definición, modos y diferencias al gran monarcha… Felipe IIII… Síguense a los Diálogos, Informaciones y pareceres en sabor del Arte, escritas por varones insignes en todas letras. Madrid, Spain: Impresor Francisco Martínez, 1633.

    Includes introduction, biography, summary, analysis, and notes. The first dialogue is on the difficulty of art; second on the origins of painting; third on the definition of painting; fourth on theoretical painting and practice; fifth on judging painting, perspective, and colorido; sixth on modes of painting and the differences between painting and sculpture; seven on how to paint sacred history; and eighth on practical matters such physiognomy and symmetry. Available online.

  • Ceán Bermúdez, Juan A. Diccionario histórico de los más ilustres profesores de bellas artes en España. 6 vols. Madrid, Spain: Reales Academias de Bellas Artes de San Fernando y de la Historia, 1965.

    Based on an 1800 edition of the original manuscript. This source does not have illustrations and is arranged alphabetically by artist from the Gothic period to the period of the author’s contemporaries. Included are summaries of each artist and descriptions of artworks. Volume 6 includes a list of chronological tables by discipline. Sculptors are listed by date, name, and city on pages 105–128. A digital version is available in the virtual library of Asturias. Available online. Also, from the Biblioteca Nacional de España, the original edition can be consulted online.

  • Martínez, Jusepe. Discursos Practicables del Nobilísimo Arte de la Pintura, sus rudimentos, medios y fines que enseña la experiencia. Con los exemplares de obras insignes de Artífices Ilustres/por Joseph Martinez Pintor De S.M. y del Serenissimo Señor D.Juan de Austria. Manuscrito, 1673 y 1675. Edited by María Elena Manrique Ara. Zaragoza, Spain: Prensas Universitarias Universidad de Zaragoza, 2008.

    Based on the 1673 and 1676 manuscript that discusses the art of painting and includes nine treatises; the one on anatomy and another on color are important for sculpture. Edited book has an introduction, biography, and literary analysis on art and literature, the pedagogy of art and history, and an extensive bibliography. In Part 1 the editor discusses concepts of theory, genius and ingenuity, taste, natural and moral philosophy. Part 2 includes sources and biographies. Original manuscript available online.

  • Pacheco, Francisco. El arte de la pintura. Madrid, Spain: Impressor Simon Fajardo, 1649.

    Republished by Cátedra in 1990 and edited by Bonaventura Bassegoda i Hugas. An annotated transcription that includes a fifty-page introduction and a ten-page bibliography. This book is essential for 17th-century technique and practice in the production of sacred art. It is translated and edited by Zahira Véliz in Artists’s Techniques in Golden Age Spain: Six Treatises in Translation (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986). Available online.

  • Palomino de Castro y Velasco, Acisclo Antonio. El museo pictórico, y escala óptica: Práctica de la pintura, en que se trata el modo de pintar á el olio, temple, y fresco, con la resolucion de todas las dudas … y de la perspectiva común. Madrid, Spain: L. A. de Bedmar, Impressor del Reyno, 1715.

    Written 1715–1724. Volume 1: the theory of painting; Volume 2: the practice of painting; and Volume 3: El Parnaso español pintoresco laureado was translated as An Account of the Lives and Works of the Most Eminent Spanish Painters, Sculptors and Architects, translated and edited by Nina Ayala Mallory (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987). Its a biographical dictionary of 226 painters and sculptors living between the 15th and 17th centuries. Available online.

  • Ponz, Antonio. Viage de España, en que se dá noticia de las cosas más apreciables, y dignas de saberse, que hay en ella. 18 vols. Madrid, Spain: D. Joachin Ibarra, 1772–1794.

    Written by an 18th-century historian and painter after his travels around Spain in 1769. It describes monuments and artworks. It is an unillustrated catalogue of the artistic patrimony of Spain during the reforms of Carlos III. Volume 1 starts with Madrid and Volume 17 ends with Jerez de la Frontera. Volume 18 covers works outside of Spain. Edited by del Rivero and reprinted in twenty-one volumes by the publisher Aguilar in 1947, Madrid.

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