St. Ferdinand, King of Spain

About 1730–1760



Artist not known, Mexico


  • Mexico

Object Info

This object may or may not be on view currently.

Artist not known, Mexico

About 1730–1760

Height: 76 in.

Gift from Sam Houston in honor of Ms. Helen Bonfils, 1956.91

Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2009. All Rights Reserved.


  • wood


About the Artist

The artist who created this object used various techniques to turn a wooden sculpture into a life-like depiction of St. Ferdinand. For fabric areas, the artist used a technique referred to in Spanish as estofado [ES-toe-FAH-doe]. When using the estofado technique, the artist would first cover the wood with gesso, or base paint, mixed with a brownish-red pigment called bole. Tissue-thin sheets of hammered gold were then applied to the bole base. Next, the artist would apply paint over the gold leaf. The paint layer was then etched through to reveal the gold leaf underneath. To depict areas of skin, such as the face and hands, the artist used a technique known as encarnación [EN-car-nah-see-OWN]. Similar to the estofado technique, the artist would begin by covering the carved wood with white gesso, which was then painted over with flesh-toned paint. A layer of clear, glossy varnish was applied over the paint and gently sanded smooth. The artist would repeat the process of applying paint and sanding it until the buildup of layers resulted in a glowing surface, imitating real skin.

What Inspired It

St. Ferdinand, or Ferdinand III, was king of Castile and León in Spain during the early 1200s. Born near Salamanca, Spain, he became king in 1217 at the age of eighteen. He inherited the kingdom of Castile from his mother and the kingdom of León from his father, permanently uniting those areas for the first time and forming the core of what would later become Spain. Known as a wise and just ruler, Ferdinand was instrumental in the struggle to reclaim large areas of the Iberian Peninsula, which included Spain and Portugal, from Muslim occupation. Ferdinand had grown up during a period of intense efforts to reclaim the area for the Christians and, as a young king, continued the movement and re-conquered many cities. Ferdinand died in 1252 and was buried in a crypt underneath his chapel in the Cathedral of Seville. He was buried wearing the simple robe and rope belt of a Franciscan friar rather than the royal clothing of a king. He was canonized, or declared a saint, by the Catholic Church in 1671 for his efforts in reclaiming much of Spain for Christianity.

In Spain and Latin America, images of St. Ferdinand are often paired with images of his younger cousin, St. Louis of France, who also became a saint as a result of his religious crusades. Artists and architects of cathedrals in the New World often adorned altars with pairs of statues depicting European royalty who became saints. These altars were known as Altars of the Kings. The cathedral altar in Querétero, Mexico, where this statue is believed to have come from, was dismantled in the 1800s. Its matching statue of St. Louis of France is in a private collection in Mexico City.


The artist used the estofado technique to create an imitation of the elaborate brocaded fabrics of the period. Even though this statue is made of wood, notice how the areas of fabric seem to hang as they would if they were made of cloth.


The artist used the encarnación technique on St. Ferdinand’s face and hands to create a glowing surface that looks like real skin.


Although St. Ferdinand’s symbol is a greyhound, he is more frequently depicted holding an orb topped with a cross in one hand, and a flag with the emblems of Castile and León in the other. This sculpture only depicts an orb. The orb symbolizes St. Ferdinand’s efforts to spread Christianity throughout the Iberian Peninsula.


Notice how St. Ferdinand looks down with a calm expression. This statue would have been placed high on an altar, looking down at the people below.

Teaching Resources

Quick Classroom Ideas

  • Identify that the orb King Ferdinand holds is a symbol of his life, accomplishments, and beliefs. Have students design and paint/draw/create a symbol for themselves that they believe represents/they would want to represent their life, accomplishments, and beliefs.
  • Create a life-size symbol as a class that represents their generation (ideals, hobbies, characteristics, fads, etc). This would pull in the symbolism part as well as the structural part.

Funding for object education resources provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.

The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.