Saintly violence? Santiago on Horseback

Santiago on Horseback, 16th century, polychromed and gilded wood (Museo Franz Mayer, Mexico City, Mexico). A conversation between Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Beth Harris

Santiago Matamoros (or Saint James the Moor Slayer) was the patron saint of the conquest and colonization of the Americas by Spain. He was associated with conquest long before the Spaniards arrived in the Americas, since he was believed to have miraculously helped Spanish Christians during the so-called “Reconquest” of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) from Muslims (which started after 711).

In 1492, the  final Muslim stronghold was defeated—the same year that Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean. After the Spanish Conquest of the Aztecs in 1521 (in what is today Mexico City), the process of colonization and conversion began in what would be called the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Santiago became an important saint in New Spain, and he became known by the nickname Santiago Mataindios (Indian Killer)—recast to convey Spanish dominance over the Indigenous population. The saint’s aggressive, violent defense of Spanish Christians was celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic but is deeply troubling today. To complicate matters, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some indigenous groups in the Americas even adopted the saint’s image as an icon of resistance–in what may seem at odds with what the saint symbolized for Spaniards after the conquest. It testifies to the many meanings that saints accrued in the complex communities of the Americas.

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:05] We’re here in the Franz Mayer Museum in Mexico City, looking at a large polychrome wood sculpture of Saint James on a horse.

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:13] Saint James, or Santiago in Spanish, is a really important saint on the Iberian Peninsula and then brought here to the Americas early on after the Spanish conquest in 1521.

Dr. Harris: [0:23] He’s associated with helping the Spanish conquer, whether they were conquering the Muslims who were living on the Iberian Peninsula — who were living in what is today Spain, or whether they were conquering the Indigenous populations in what is today Mexico.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:37] What we’re seeing here in this sculpture is Saint James on his steed, who’s rearing upward, and he’s got his right arm raised with the sword as if he’s about to attack. The horse’s hooves are actually on top of what is today a wooden box that would have been decorated with either Muslims or Amerindian population.

Dr. Harris: [0:53] He’s wearing a gold uniform created in a technique called estofado.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:57] You’d have one artist who would carve the wood, another who would paint him to enliven him, and then you’d have another artist who would apply gold leaf to the sculpture, then paint over it, usually with some type of tempera or egg yolk-based paint, and then would use a stylus to peel off that paint and reveal the gold.

Dr. Harris: [1:14] He is so real, in part because he’s painted, polychromed. He’s got many colors, but also, he’s multimedia. He’s got the leather of the reins. He’s got horse’s hair for his mane. He’s got the metal from his sword. He’s incredibly realistic and dramatic.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:31] This would have been even more dramatic when you had the figures that the horse was trampling, because Saint James was known as Santiago Matamoros — Saint James the Moor-slayer — meaning he was killing Muslims. In the Americas, he becomes Santiago Mataindios — Saint James, the Indian-slayer.

Dr. Harris: [1:46] This is not to say that Saint James himself was there slaying Moors or slaying Indigenous populations here in Mexico. It’s to say that he was, in a way, their patron saint. He helped them carry out their mission.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:58] This is one reason why we see him in a lot of different media, not only polychromed wooden sculpture, but also stone reliefs on church facades, in paintings, or wooden reliefs on church altarpieces. He’s an incredibly popular saint beginning in the 16th century, and that endures throughout the duration of the viceroyalties.

Dr. Harris: [2:15] Polychrome sculpture was incredibly popular both in New Spain and the Iberian Peninsula. Sometimes we think about sculpture as pure white marble, and it can be disconcerting to come across these incredibly realistic polychrome sculptures.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:29] Many of these objects would have also been used during processions, because wood is much lighter than, say, marble or bronze. It was a natural material to use for processional sculpture. Objects like this would have been used during, say, the saint’s feast day or for other types of festivities.

Dr. Harris: [2:45] I wish I could have seen him in one of those.

[2:47] [music]

Read more about another version of Santiago Matamoros/Mataindios from New Spain on Vistas

Learn more about the legacy of the Reconquest in Latin America from Unsettling Journeys

Javier Domínguez García, “Santiago Mataindios: La Continuación De Un Discurso Medieval En La Nueva España.” Nueva Revista De Filología Hispánica 54, no. 1 (2006): 33-56

Joan Myers, Marc Simmons, and Donna Pierce, Santiago: Saint of Two Worlds (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991)

For more on how indigenous peoples (on occasion) adopted Santiago after the sixteenth century, see John M. Watanabe, “From Saints to Shibboleths: Image, Structure, and Identity in Mayan Religious Syncretism,” American Ethnologist 17, no. 1 (Feb 1990): 131–50

Constanza Ontiveros Valdés, “Las andanzas de Santiago en la nueva España y la imagen del indio: Santa María Chiconautla,” Ad Limina , no. 4 ( 2013)

Elisa Vargas Lugo et al., eds., Images of the Natives in the Art of New Spain (Mexico City: Banamex, 2005)

Print out and use the Santiago Active Video Note-taking document (for teachers and students)

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Santiago on Horseback

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Discussion questions

Compare the sculpture with the painting of Saint Michael Defeating the Devil by the Master of Belmonte (15th century, Spain). What do these works tell us about the idea of conquest and religion in Spanish culture of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries?

What does Santiago Mataindios tell us about race and the process of colonization in New Spain? How does this compare with other types of 16th-century New Spanish art, such as the murals of San Agustín de Acolman?

How do polychrome wooden sculptures, such as Santiago Mataindios and Juan Martínez Montañés and Francisco Pacheco’s Christ of Clemency broaden our understanding of renaissance/early modern sculpture? How do they compare with sculptures such as Michelangelo’s Pietà?

How do we think about works of art that were once celebrated but are now deeply troubling and racist? Why is it important to study violent and intolerant periods in history?


  • Reconquest
  • Polychrome wooden sculpture
  • Estofado

Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Beth Harris, "Saintly violence? Santiago on Horseback," in Smarthistory, March 30, 2020, accessed June 25, 2024,