Photos by Kathi Merritt

Rapa Nui (Easter Island) at the eastern edge of a widespread oceanic culture is especially known for its large stone torsos (moai). In addition to the stone moai, small wooden figures acting as mobile tabernacles for gods and individual ancestor spirits were also carved throughout Polynesia; Rapa Nui was no exception.

Certain aspects of the carving on these ancient figures, inlaid eyes of obsidian and shark vertebrae, for example, and features of birds still appear on the tourist art today, and interestingly, they also are on the Catholic saints, all carved by island artisans since 1970.

Even though Catholic missionaries have been on the island since the mid-nineteenth century, the Catholic clergy of Chile did not ask Rapanui artisans to carve their own saints until near the end of the 20th century. First was Maria, Madre de Rapa Nui and Her Son in 1970, and in the next score of years she was followed by five other saints. Maria does not resemble any European Madonna. Instead her model is the moai surrounding the artisans who carved her at the Rapanui fishing village (caleta) in May 1970.


Joan Seaver Kurze and Georgia Lee on Easter Island in the 1980’s

In 2018, EIF founding member and past president Joan Seaver Kurze, who is an expert on the subject of Easter Island wood carvings, published Saints on Easter Island, a book that details the creation of the carving Maria, Madre de Rapa Nui and her Son, as well as the other carvings in the Parroquia Santa Cruz (Church of the Holy Cross) in Hangaroa, Easter Island. Her previous book, Ingrained Images: Wood Carvings from Easter Island (1997) is a detailed study of the wood carving tradition on Easter Island and is available for purchase on our publications page.