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What is a Cage Doll

The cage doll has become hugely popular with those who like to decorate their house in Santa Fe style. She also appeals to aficionados of "shabby-chic" and bohemian surroundings. As you can see in the photo, the cage doll is a wooden doll from the waist up. Her elbows and wrists are jointed for limited posing. Her face is carved with realism and beauty and finished with an exquisite paint job. Her minimal hair is also painted on. From the waist down, she is an open framework of five elongated strips of wood connected to a heavy circular base. Most definitely she is not a children's doll to be played with, but an object d'art. Where did these unusual dolls come from?

Cage dolls were first made by Catholics to represent the saints and the Holy Family. The Catholics carried them in processions and kept them in special nichos (alcoves) in the church. The reason cage dolls had a wooden framework from the waist down was to fill out the elaborate gowns and robes in which they were dressed. The Catholics could have carried plaster or stone statues in procession, but the wooden cage dolls looked so much more beautiful and lifelike. This was especially important to the Spanish Catholics who found themselves far from home, colonizing the wide open spaces of what would one day become Mexico and the American Southwest. They knew that they would probably never again see the beautiful cathedrals of Spain. To keep their faith alive and to nourish their memories of home, they tried to replicate the marble statuary of the saints, but in wood and paint. This same spiritual need led to the creation of the much more primitive-looking bultos (roughly carved wooden saints) in the remote regions of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado.

Today's cage dolls are replicas of the originals, which are now priceless antiques. In keeping with the "shabby chic" aesthetic, they are made new to look "distressed" with chipped paint and subdued colors as if faded by time. Cage dolls are especially appealing because of their serene, angelic expressions. They can be fitted with angel wings and halos made from gilded tin. Many wear delicate jeweled crowns. You can drape a rosary over them. You can dress them in elaborate robes as the Catholics still do, but most people choose to display the wooden framework. The open circular base is a great place for an offbeat treasure such as a bird's nest with porcelain robin's eggs or even a tiny theatre stage complete with velvet curtains and miniature dolls as actors.

If you like to decorate your house in Santa Fe style, which borrows heavily from the antique look of Mexico and the Spanish Catholic Church, the cage doll will fit right in. You can find them on eBay. And here is a book in which they figure prominently: The Divine Home: Living with Spiritual Objects

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