Mysterious Bread Sculptures: Masapán of Calderón, Ecuador

I’ve been processing late arrivals to the Cotsen collection: a small group of material that was once displayed in the Neutrogena Offices during Lloyd Cotsen’s tenure. As always, Lloyd’s collection habits were eclectic, and I’ve had a very fun time describing unique material. But the most unusual additions to the collection have to be our newest (and only) pieces of leavened folk art:

In-process item

In-process item

Described only as “bread sculptures” upon arrival from our friends in Los Angeles, everyone in Special Collections was immediately struck by the surprising choice of material. Initially, I was worried about the prospect of having food in the library! Don’t worry though, after a review from our colleagues in conservation, we have deemed the material safe from attracting pests (though, sadly, quite inedible for humans).

Tasked with describing such unfamiliar objects, I turned to the internet for help. After some diligent googling about bread art traditions, including a brief cul-de-sac in which I learned about the bread-art tradition in Russian prisons which inspired a contemporary bread sculptor, I found the origin of our new items. Our “bread sculptures” are masapán, from maize dough (masa) and bread (pan), a folk art tradition practiced uniquely in Calderón; a rural parish of Quito, Ecuador.

Contemporary masapán for comparison. The color palette is more pastel than our examples. But the floral motifs remain the same. Photo by Angie Drake,

The practice of making masapán figurines emerged in the 1940s. It grew out of the tradition of making guagua de pan, a sweet roll shaped “bread baby” decorated to look like a swaddled infant. Eaten and offered at graves on All souls’ Day, better known as the Day of the Dead, on November 2nd, the tradition is syncretic: eating T’anta wawa (Quechua for “bread” and “baby”) is an ancestral rite in many Andean regions of South America.

T’anta wawa with traditional pairing of colada morada: a drink made of local fruits, spices, and corn flour.

In Calderón, masapán expanded. It came to be used to create bread-based nativity scenes and Christmas decorations. As it’s popularity with tourists grew, masapán came to be produced year round by hundreds of local artists.

Masapán nativity ornaments

Masapán horse with small figures, a reoccurring motif.

Our exquisitely crafted examples seem to have been created in the traditional method: hand-rolled dough that is sculpted with hand-tools, air dried for days, carefully painted, and then lacquered for longevity. Our witch is perhaps Día de Muertos appropriate, while our horse with riders and small pony seem to follow a general horse-based theme.

Upclose shot of the 4 figures on the large horse. Perhaps featuring the three kings for a nativity scene?

This pony, though framed with our witch, was probably created as a standalone piece.

Though our examples are a little shaken from time and transport, they are still whole and fully display the craft skill and delicate touch used to create them. Once mysterious, I am happy to have learned so much about this unique tradition and to include these rare examples of folk art in the Cotsen collection. Cotsen is a truly appropriate home for such rare objects, since we celebrate all folk ways and stories, no matter what they are made of!

A Nigerian Thorn Carving of a School Room

Cotsen 36485, 7.3 x 14 x 18.7 cm.

Cotsen 36485, 7.3 x 14 x 18.7 cm.

Above is a classic example of a modern Nigerian thorn carving from the early 1990’s. Made principally by the Yoruba people since the 30’s, these miniature folk art pieces (sometimes more appropriately referred to as “tourist art” depending on their intended market) usually feature scenes and aspects of everyday Nigerian life. This particular carving depicts a classroom scene where diligent pupils are learning their ABC’s.


The thorns used for these carvings come from 2 varieties of trees: the ata tree and the egungun tree. The thorns grow up to 5 inches in length and their relative suppleness makes for easier carving. They come in three colors: cream, rose, and brown; all three of which are exhibited in our little classroom scene. Though the carving above is mostly composed of recycled wood, the thorn wood provides the color and life of the piece.



Classroom scenes of all sorts are a collection interest of our benefactor Lloyd E. Cotsen. We find them all over the collection, in all sorts of mediums. For the occasion of Mr. Cotsen’s 75th birthday we published Readers in the Cotsen Children’s Library (Princeton : Cotsen Children’s Library, 2005). This accordion style pamphlet (available here in the gallery) included one such memorable classroom scene from our collection:

page 22, reproduction of Oranges and lemons : a book of pictures and stories for children (Cotsen 22656, page 18)

page 22, reproduction of Oranges and lemons : a book of pictures and stories for children (Cotsen 22656, page 18)

If your thirst for classroom-related material is still unsatiated, I’d recommend Jeff Barton’s blog post: School Days in Children’s Books about depictions of school scenes from 18th- and 19th-century children’s books.