During the 19th century, a unique artistic tradition, retablos, flourished in Mexico. Retablos are popular expressions of faith painted on small sheets of tin-coated iron used for home worship. Retablos, better known as "laminas" in Mexico, are small oil paintings on tin, zinc, wood or copper which were used in home altars to venerate the almost infinite number of Catholic saints. The literal translation for "retablo" is "behind the altar."
This genre of folk art, deeply rooted in Spanish history, represents the heart and soul of traditional religious beliefs in 17th, 18th, and 19th century Mexican culture. Colorful, spiritual, symbolic, allegorical, historical, folkloric and charming are just a few of the words that best describe this unique art form.
A process which was originally introduced to converted indigenous groups by the Spanish, the retablo was an art form that flourished in post-conquest Mexico. Ultimately, with the introduction of inexpensive mediums such as tin, it reached its pinnacle of popularity in the last quarter of the 19th century. Small retablo factories were established with a hierarchy of trained and untrained artists who worked to produce and reproduce the same images; some subjects more prolifically than others.
A typical "retablero," seldom recognized as an artist, may have reproduced the same image hundreds, if not thousands, of times in his career. These oil paintings were sold to devout believers who displayed them in home altars to honor their patron Saints. There are hundreds of saints, each invoked to remedy a different situation. "San Ysidro Labrador," the patron saint of farmers, is venerated for good weather, agricultural issues and prosperous crop. He is often called upon before picnics or just before harvest. Having spent four years in the forest as a hermit, San Jeronimo, the patron saint of scholars and philosophers, is called upon for protection against temptations and want.
Counterpart to the retablo, ex-votos are devotional paintings on canvas or tin that offer thanks to a particular saint in the form of a short narrative. In many events, a small child recovers from an illness, a favorite animal finally wanders home, or a family narrowly escapes the clutches of death after their small house burns to the ground. The petitioner, grateful for a miracle received, dedicates a small painting (with a short testimonial) to the respective patron Saint.
The Mexican retablo is a hybrid of indigenous artistry, centuries old catholic iconography and Spanish culture. This unique combination of subject and style reflects the historical, cultural and religious links between "old" and "new" worlds.