Border Studies at EPCC
NW Library and EPCC Links
Other Local Libraries
We do NOT have the resources to assist with genealogical research.
For GENEALOGICAL RESEARCH please contact:
*El Paso Genealogical Society
Retablos: Echoes of Faith
Article first published in Vol. 10, 1992.
By Bertha Lujan
What one century prizes, even worships, other generations discard or use differently. A recent exhibit of Mexican retablos at the El Paso Museum of History illustrates this truism. A retablo is a religious image painted most often on tin but also found on canvas, copper or wood. Less than a century ago, retablos were commonly found in both churches and homes, but today they are collected by individuals and museums as art pieces and can be worth hundreds of dollars a piece.
Before the 1800s, retablos were large gilded, painted and carved screens which adorned churches. However, Rene Harris, Director of the El Paso Museum of History, speculates that in the 19th century, they became smaller in size, typically painted by unskilled artists who were commissioned or who simply painted in bulk to sell in small booths outside the church. The retablos were painting of the Virgin Mary, Christ or saints, copied from images in churches and rarely signed by the artists.
Since canvas had to be imported from Europe and then painted in Mexico, only churches and the wealthy could afford expensive canvas retablos. Early New Mexico retablos were very different from this type as they were made of pine, readily available in the mountains.
A thin coat of gesso (plaster of Paris mixed with glue) was applied primarily to the area where the face would appear and then painted over with water soluble colors. Some paints were imported from Spain and others obtained from native plants. Once the retablos had been painted, a coat of wax-resin was applied to maintain and preserve the colors. A related religious art work is the ex-voto. Experts disagree on whether they can be called retablos. Retablos depict the Virgin, the Holy Family or a patron saint, and the ex-voto (from "votive," meaning given in fulfillment of a vow or wish) is a personal account and representation of miraculous interventions.
Popular retablos of the first type include many variations of the Mater Dolorosa, a depiction of the Virgin Mary mourning the loss of her son. She is depicted in despair, a dagger piercing her breast, and various symbols of the crucifixion are found in the picture. Other retablos might picture saints to whom the people prayed for protection and for favors.
For instance, San Antonio de Padua was thought to help families find husbands for their unmarried daughters. San Isidro, patron saint of farmers, is said to bring good weather and protect livestock from disease. Pictures of these saints might hang on an altar or in a home where the occupants could pray to them.
The ex-votos tell a story of a divine cure or intercession and thus reflect the artist's rendition of the miracle. Painted on wood or tin, the ex-voto portrays the person offering the painting along with the religious image to whom it is dedicated. The explanation of the miracle appears either at the top or bottom of the painting. Ex-votos were usually hung on a church wall or placed near a particular image to commemorate the recovery of the person from grave danger or to give thanks to a particular saint.
While the ex-voto is still painted, the retablo lost its popularity in the 1920s when lithographs became inexpensive and readily available. Harris says churches sold off retablos which "cluttered the walls," selling them as scrap metal to peddlers. In turn, these vendors sold them to collectors who saw an artistic and historical value to the paintings.
Two such El Paso collectors are Ray Pearson and Nancy Hamilton. Pearson's extensive collection includes both retablos since the 1960s, and she has exhibited many of her pieces locally and in shows throughout the country. She recently loaned nine retablos portraying Our Lady of Guadalupe to an exhibit in Poland.
Gloria Giffords, renowned expert on retablos says, "It has often been said that to understand a society one must understand its art. The virtually unknown and largely unappreciated retablo speaks a language… that has now virtually disappeared." We on the border still have an opportunity to view the retablo and ex-voto in churches and museums and perhaps even in homes where they still serve a religious purpose. The language Gifford speaks about, that of faith, is not entirely lost here. The El Paso Museum of Art includes a number of retablos in its permanent collection.