Monday, April 19, 2010

Retablos (or Ex-Votos)

Octopus´retablo. Image from

Retablos portray the blessings of saints and the Trinity's protection of immigrants as they struggled across the border and survived the trials and tribulations of a new and often tenuous life in America. (…..)is an emotional ethnic narrative of individual gratitude, running the gamut from a safe border crossing, finding a job, and maintaining good health to surviving the war in Vietnam.
The term retablo is derived from the Latin “retro tabulum” meaning "behind the (altar) table.” This art form began with religious paintings that were placed behind the altars of European Catholic churches in the 11th century. The altarpieces varied in size and medium. They either stood behind the altars (reredos) or on the altars (retables). The paintings, carvings, diptychs, and triptychs depicted saints, holy people, and religious scenes (Zarur & Lovell, 2001).

Bats´ retablo. Image from
Religious paintings on tinplate were a necessary component of a Mexican family’s Catholic home altar. The holy images and personal testimonies of thanks provided protection to everyone in the family. Retablos were initially popular in the Mexican states of Zacatecas, Durango, Queretaro, Jalisco, and San Luis Potosi and later appeared in other parts of Mexico. The plates were framed in wood or tin and often nailed to the wall. For 100 years (1820-1920) the retablo cottage industry flourished until color lithographs and inexpensive machine-made reproductions ended this religious art form (Giffords, 1992).
When tinplate sheets were first imported to Mexico from Great Britain and the United States in the early 19th century, they came in a standard size of 20” X 14” which was cut into smaller sections of 14” x 10”, 7” x 10”, and 7” x 5”. Another source of blank sheets for retablos were pieces of tin taken from lard or cooking oil containers (hojalata) that were cut and trimmed into non-standard sizes. The retablo artists used a limited color range of metallic paints (usually red, blue, green, yellow and flesh tones) to complete the work. The low humidity of central and northern Mexico produces little rust on metal objects. The combination of a low rust climate and generous applications of commercial metallic oil paints gave the retablos a long life. As the paintings age, however, they lose their sheen and gloss and appear more subdued and somber than their original bright statements.
The identities of most of the self-trained artists, called retablista or pintor de retablos, who painted the unsigned retablos, remain unknown. They acquired their skills through solitary practice or by serving as apprentices. The artists reproduced commissioned paintings and wood carvings from Catholic iconography in a baroque style. The most common scenes in the painted folk artworks are manifestations of the Holy Virgin (especially the miracles of Guadalupe) and the refuge of sinners, both of which are usually set against a simple background. The benefactors of divine intervention are depicted as supplicants kneeling in perpetual gratitude in a stage-like setting.
The Mexican retablo is a hybrid of Spanish religious iconography and the rich, vivid colors of indigenous folk art for which Mexico is renowned. The hybridity of these commissioned artworks represents a confluence of traditional imagery and the emotional and spiritual circumstances the purchaser wanted portrayed. The handwritten dedication, usually at the bottom, explains the events, the intervening spiritual force, and lists the name(s) of the grateful person(s). Occasionally a retablo became a collage when the artist pasted or attached a paper image of the patron’s favorite saint or a photograph of the supplicant on the flat surface (Durand & Massey, 1995). These devotional ex-votos (votive images) all contain a brief narrative of a crisis, the intervention of the Holy Spirit, and a dedication of thanks for the blessing that saved the individual or family.
The religious figures and images in a retablo adhere to the Catholic church’s official clothing and spiritual attributes. Anatomy and perspective are not important in these two- dimensional artworks except for the dominating and hierarchical scale of the holy persona. The simplistic poses and hand-printed spiritual narrative on an inexpensive, durable surface express the essence of simple, universal folk art. Most of these works are small scale in the tradition of Persian miniatures. In this small space the powerful emotional messages touch, move, and involve most viewers.

An accident in the river. Image from

Excerpts from the Article  Angels on the Border: Religious Paintings by Mexican Immigrants. By Hwa Young Caruso, Ed. D. & John Caruso, Jr., Ph. D. For Art Review Magazine
© 2006 Electronic Magazine of Multicultural Education


  1. Mi más cordial enhorabuena. Extraordinario.

  2. Muchas gracias José Luis por tu visita y comentario. He visto personalmente algunos ex votos y me parecen conmovedores. Saludos,


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