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.


  • Reconquest
  • Polychrome wooden sculpture
  • Estofado

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Santiago on Horseback

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Additional resources:

Read more about Spain in the 15th and 16th centuries

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)

For the classroom

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

Discussion questions

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?

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