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Santeira Art

As a cultural tradition, Santeira art is one of the most significant branches of popular culture and one of Piauí’s strongest art forms for tourism.

Santeira Art

Article available in: PT-BR

Last update: 30/04/2015

By: Júlia Morim - N/I

Religion is a crucial component of artistic expression that reached its peak in Piauí, a state of northeastern Brazil. Santeira art can be produced in several parts of the country, but in the Northeast it assumes a mythical and traditional proportion to combine the representation of Catholic saints with the strong religiosity present in almost every home in the region. In Piauí, Santeira art masters have the ability to carve all kinds of wooden images and delicately maintain simplicity in pieces that express a vision of the world.

As a cultural tradition, Santeira art is one of the most significant branches of popular culture and one of Piauí’s strongest art forms for tourism. It consists of sculpting small images of saints in wood, or “ex-votos”, which are pieces that symbolize different parts of the body, also made of wood, usually to commemorate the payment of a promise or blessing from a patron saint.

Its development in Teresina is directly related to two immigrants from the interior of the state. The first is José Alves de Oliveira, Master Dezinho, who after working as a farmer, carpenter, joiner and building labourer, came to the capital of Piauí to work as a labourer in the construction of the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes. His sculpting talent was discovered by Father Francisco Carvalho, who used the rustic images made by Dezinho in the temple itself, where even today his characterizations of angels, Mary and the Child Jesus can be seen and appreciated.

The second is Expedito Antonio dos Santos, Master Expedito, who came to Teresina in the 1970s and began carving larger pieces also in the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes. Although they are recognized and admired masters by young saint makers, Dezinho and Expedito have different styles, which in itself testifies to the uniqueness of Santeira art. While Dezinho explores more primitive traits, for example exaggerating the representation of the saint’s features, Expedito’s style is closer to Baroque, being more faithful to anatomical proportions and natural scale of the human body.

Thanks to the originality and diversity in the production of local artisans, Santeira art surpasses that of other regions (where it is made from raw materials such as ceramics, plaster and soap stone) in terms of national recognition or even recognition abroad. It is seen as a good export product, especially for countries that have a large number of practicing Catholics, like Italy, France, Spain and Poland. According to a study by the Brazilian Support Service for Micro and Small Enterprises (SEBRAE, 2005, p. 31),

…the great advantage of Santeira Art from Teresina compared to the other regions is that it is the cultural reference, since the wood allows a better artistic inculturation of popular piety, that is, there is an identification of the saints and angels with the typical and suffering figure of the Northeaster, in addition to the increased durability of the pieces.

Santeira art of Piaui, however, has run into some obstacles. The first is the high cost of raw material. The best wood is cedar, which needs to be brought from Belém do Pará, inflating the cost of the process. In the absence of cedar, umburana, cherry and mahogany are used in the manufacture of parts. Another aspect to be considered is the final price of the pieces, which has the tendency to alienate the average consumer or the poorer sections of society from an art that just grew out of the humblest.

However, nothing minimizes the importance of Santeira art, especially when one takes into account that the Northeast is a region where religious pilgrimages are part of ordinary life. As much as in Canindé or Juazeiro, Ceará, as in São José do Ribamar, Maranhão, or in Santa Cruz dos Milagres, Piauí, pilgrimages are made in several months throughout the year. Their devotion is the fuel that ensures Santeira art will never disappear.


Recife, 28 May 2014.
Translated by Peter Leamy, February 2015.

sources consulted

CARVALHO, Danúbia Silva. A arte santeira como elemento de valorização da cultura popular em Teresina-PI na atividade turística. Interciências, Teresina, PI, v. 2, n. 1, jan./jun., 2010. Available at: <
>. Accessed: 15 maio 2014.

CAVALCANTE, Ivana Medeiros Pacheco. O patrimônio - cara de pau, cara de santo. Available at: <
>. Accessed: 15 maio 2014.

SEBRAE. Estudo da situação econômica do artesanato de Teresina: cerâmica, tecelagem, arte santeira e bordado. Teresina: SEBRAE; PI/Prefeitura de Teresina; Fundação Wall Ferraz, 2005. Available at: <$File/
>. Accessed: 20 fev. 2014.

how to quote this text

Source: MORIM, Júlia. Santeira Art. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, Recife.
Available at: <>. Accessed: day month year. Ex: 6 ago. 2009.