Showcasing the art and ritual of the African and African-diaspora religions

Santa Marta Dominadora statue with white child

Catalog Number: H003


39.0 x 25.0 x 23.0 cm


15.3 x 9.8 x 9.0 in


Religion and Denomination: Vodun (West Africa, Ewe-Gen-Aja-Fon)
Ethnographic Origin: Dominican (Caribbean)
Usage: N/A
Detailed Description of Significance:

Santa Martha of Tarasćon was a woman from medieval Europe who was sainted after taming a savage dragon. She has widespread popularity in the Dominican Republic. By the 1960s, statues such as this one had found their ways into religious goods shops known as botánicas there and, eventually, into other Latin American destinations. 

This contemporary representation of that saint additionally incorporates ideas about and images of an Afro-Atlantic water spirit.  It re-imagines in three dimensions a complex of water spirit images that have circulated around the Atlantic for more than a century. The original inspiration for these arts seems to have been a poster for a Southeast Asian snake charmer who performed at a German menagerie in the late nineteenth century. While the most famous chromolithograph of the entertainer featured her only from the hips up, for Santa Marta, an unknown artist has improvised a cross-legged posture and a long gown. The infant here may refer to a flute player in some versions of the snake charmer image and to popular Catholic iconography of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child. Some variants of the Santa Marta design omit this feature.  Note that, in this image the child is depicted as white.  This is the most common depiction.  In this depiction however, there is another Santa Martha figure with a black child.

Practitioners of Vodu, the version of Haitian Vodou practiced in the Dominican Republic, have added Santa Marta to the ranks of their sacred divinities. Many Dominicans hold that there are actually two Santa Martas, one black, the other white, and statues such as this are available in a variety of skin tones that reflect the diverse backgrounds of her devotees. The text on the base of this version establishes that this is not the white Santa Martha of European legend, but someone who is reckoned as an African saint: Santa Marta la Dominadora, who also goes by the names Santa Marta Africana, “Santa Marta la Negra,” “Santa Marta Lubana,” and “la Virgen Deminadora de la Serpiente.”   Legend has it that she rescued a child from a snake-infested forest where even brave men feared to tread.  She is sometimes identified with the Kongo spirits, whom practitioners and scholars link to the divinities of the Kongo people of West–Central Africa. Others connect her to elemental fire or earth, or to the Petwo spirits.