Santiago, or Saint James, was a popular saint in Spanish America, and statues and paintings of him abound. Parts of this work were carved out of wood, but much of the sculpture was fashioned out of stalks of maize that were plastered and painted, rendering it light enough to carry in processions. The statue would be borne out of the church into the streets for the religious processions that punctuated the yearly calendar, thus knitting together sacred and civic space. Today, such vividly painted portable statues are commonly found in churches in Latin America; this one likely came from Central Mexico.
James was one of the Apostles of Jesus, and according to legends born in the Middle Ages, went as far as Spain to proselytize. Thus, this Saint James of legend offered an appealing example to the friars who came to the New World to evangelize. Brandishing his sword, he was also a model of the militant Christian—choosing action above contemplation. Spaniards further believed he appeared to King Ramirez of León at the battle of Clavijo in the 9th century, helping the Christian monarch rout Muslim Saracens. Since this reconquista was seen as analogous to the campaigns of religious evangelization in Spanish America, Saint James was brought to life again and again in the dramas of battling Moors and Christians that were frequently staged in the colonial period (and sometimes performed in parts of Latin America today).
Navarro Castro, F. 1992. “Latin American Iconography of St. James the Killer of Moors.” In America, Bride of the Sun, 500 Years of America and the Low Countries. Pp. 186-196. Brussels: Flemish Community, Administration of External Relations, and Ghent: Imschoot Books.
Williams, Jerry. 1992. El teatro del México colonial: época misionera. New York: P. Lang.