For many people of Mexican heritage, a retablo signifies a vital part of their society. Found in homes and churches, these devotional paintings depict holy deities and icons.
Certain types of religious retablos may be familiar to the general public. But others have more significant storytelling aspects not as widely known to those outside Mexico. It may surprise you to learn the history of this tradition dates back almost 2,000 years.
Join us as we discover why the retablo became such an important part of Mexican culture.
What Is Mexican Folk Art?
Mexican folk art tells the story of people and cultures throughout Mexico from the modern day to thousands of years ago. Archeologists regularly dig up carved and painted artifacts from places like Oaxaca, Chiapas, Guerrero, and Michoacán dating back 4,000 years or more.
Artists throughout Mexico create art using various materials, including stone, wood, metal, amber, and vegetable fibers. The artwork is often colorful, made from natural dyes, and representative of specific cultures and communities.
Other folk art from around the world is often practical in addition to being visually attractive. People often appreciated the decorative aspects well after the creation of the item for its intended use. Water vessels, knives, and cooking pots are examples of folk art.
Rather than being functional, Mexican folk art is visually appealing and symbolic of a particular tradition. Spirit animals, religious depictions, and cultural symbols are some themes regularly found in the artwork of Mexico.
So What Is a Mexican Retablo?
Chances are you know what a Mexican retablo is by sight, even if the name isn’t familiar. Retablos are paintings and sometimes sculptures depicting religious figures like the Virgin Mary and Jesus. But they also portray favors or miracles received by individuals and communities.
The tradition of retablos dates back to approximately 900 A.D. throughout central and southern Mexico and some South American countries. But after the Spanish Conquest in the 1500s, the European religious influence became more prevalent.
The word retablo comes from the Latin retro tabula meaning “behind the altar.” It referred to paintings placed behind church altars during the Middle Ages. However, during the 12th and 13th centuries, the term generally pertained to sacred painted images.
Mexican retablos originally began as paintings on canvas. Over time, small pieces of tin became the common medium used for these devotional pieces. Images reflecting the Catholic influence after the Spanish colonization were much more prevalent, beginning around 1820.
What Are the Types of Retablos?
Two types of Mexican retablos exist. While they both depict religious imagery and icons, their purposes vary slightly.
This may be the most familiar type of retablo. Santos were paintings of holy figures such as the Virgin Mary, Christ, and saints placed inside churches around altars.
Eventually, santos became common in homes. Initially, only wealthy church parishioners had them as they would pay artists to paint them. But once the cost of producing them became affordable, santos found their way into homes of the average family.
While santos typically portray images of single religious figures, ex-votos may contain multiple deities and text. These types of retablos were mostly found only in churches and shrines. The terms retablo and ex-voto are often interchangeably used in the Mexican language.
The purpose of ex-votos served two objectives – publicly displaying the miracles the icon performed and thanking them for favors received. The painted text described the acts of kindness performed by the religious figure.
As with santos, only the upper class initially had the means to commission ex-votos. However, the practice eventually spread throughout communities, regardless of socioeconomic standings.
Why Are Mexican Retablos So Important?
The Mexican people generally have a strong connection to religion and holy figures. Retablos represented a way for Mexican people to feel closer to and directly communicate with Christ, saints, and the Virgin Mother. This is as true today as it was centuries ago.
An interesting aspect of ex-votos is their ability to share historical insight into people and issues over time. For instance, many of these retablos tell stories of diseases and treatments of illnesses from a time when other documentation may not exist.
But other situations such as natural disasters, animal attacks, drunken husbands, robbing victims, and mining accidents were common retablo stories. More recently, in the 20th century, depictions of immigration issues became common.
Who Are Some Famous Mexican Retablo Artists?
Many Mexican retablo artists remain unknown, especially those who painted them before the 20th century. However, some do have name recognition, like the three highlighted here.
Born in Mexico City in 1907, Frida Kahlo’s paintings express personal issues like physical ailments, relationships, and self-discovery. Much of her artwork represented Mexican life, including using retablo imagery to illustrate certain difficult situations.
In one of her pieces titled Henry Ford Hospital, Kahlo uses retablo-style images to depict her 1932 miscarriage. Two other paintings, My Birth and Self-Portrait on the Border of Mexico and the United States, were done that same year in the same style.
Diego Rivera had an early aptitude for art. Born in 1886, he attended the San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts in Mexico City when he was just ten years old. By age 21, he traveled to Europe for a decade to study and gain inspiration from the likes of Picasso, Matisse, and Gaugin.
Much of Rivera’s art portrayed political and social struggles in early 20th Century Mexico. But he deeply appreciated Mexican folk art, including retablos, which inspired some of his murals and paintings.
Francisco Larios Osunas
Contemporary Mexican artist Francisco Larios Osunas uses a variety of mediums in his artwork. His pieces express the relationship between humans and divinity, pain and suffering, and the capacity of people to both create and destroy.
A series of 24 art pieces Osuna created using 3-D modeling software includes images of saints and people experiencing difficult life situations. In the tradition of the Mexican retablo, thanks and appreciation are expressed to the deities providing miracles and favors.
Where Can I See Mexican Retablos?
Now that you know all about retablos, we bet you want to see some in person. Fortunately, if you live in or visit New Mexico or Texas, you have the opportunity to view the largest ex-voto collections in the country.
New Mexico State University Museum
Located in Las Cruces, New Mexico, this is where you can view the most extensive collection of Mexican retablos in the United States. The museum houses over 1,700 19th-century devotional paintings.
The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm and offers free admission and parking for visitors.
El Paso Museum of Art
The second largest collection of Mexican retablos is available for viewing at this El Paso, Texas, museum. The collection includes hundreds of paintings from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.
The museum is open Wednesday through Saturday and offers free admission.
Outside Folk Gallery
You can explore more folk, street, and outsider art in our personal collection at Outside Folk Art. We’re celebrating these creatives and giving voice to rising black, Native, immigrant, and working mother artisans.
We’ll also be offering pop-up shows and collaborations with small museums, so be sure to follow us to discover the where and when!
Retablos Offer a Different Perspective of Mexican Culture
Retablos offer a glimpse into the history of Mexican culture, devotion, and gratitude to religious deities. In addition to their beauty, they express the depth of spiritual life found throughout Mexico.
Would you consider including a Mexican retablo in your art collection? Let us know in the comments.