Retablos & Ex-Votos The Spanish word retablo was derived from the Latin term retro tabula or “behind the altar” (retro for back and tabula for board, tablet; the Latin tabulum means table). It was originally used to designate elaborate wooden screens placed behind the main altar displaying sculptures, paintings, or both, of the main patron saints and other images of devotion. However, in nineteenth-century Mexico, sacred images painted on tin and displayed as an integral part of home altars were also referred to as retablos. The main function of displaying retablos in the Mexican home altars was the belief that a saint or deity would intervene in the life of the devotee, bringing good health, prosperity and protection against life’s ills. Paintings on tin plates are categorized according to the type of image represented, their purpose, location of display, function and artistic characteristics. Retablo Santo refers to depictions of different images of devotion such as those of patron saints, Jesus Christ and the many advocations of the Virgin Mary displayed in home altars for private worship. Contrary to retablo santo, the votive objects known as Retablo Ex-voto, are meant to be displayed in major pilgrimage sites as public testimonies for graces received. The retablo santo follow the canons of European art and Catholic iconography leaving very limited freedom for individual creativity. However, the retablo ex-voto depends primarily on the artist’s ingenuity and spontaneity. The Latin term ex-voto meant “the promise of,” “from a vow,” “out of vow,” or the “miracle of.” This concept of asking for favors and using art as payment and propaganda for received graces dates back to pre-historical times. It refers to the payment of a vow, made in a moment of distress, by offering to the divine figure by the intercessor, a painting or various other objects related to the grace received, in specific pilgrimage centers. They are of particular interest in recording the history and faith of the people. The ex-voto consists of three components. Most of the upper section of the composition contain the two of the three components: a painted scene depicting a miracle and, higher in this same space, the image of the invoked saint or deity. Often, at the bottom section, there is a written testimony of how the miracle occurred. The name of the artist is seldom included in the painting. The devotee commissions the retablo to a specialized artist called retablero (retablo maker) or milagrero (miracle maker). Hundreds and thousands of retablo ex-votos are left in shrines all over Mexico. The proliferation of religious centers and pilgrimage sites was established along the ancient Camino Real. Each of those sanctuaries were dedicated to a specific advocations to the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ, where pilgrims could visit and make their offerings. Among the most famous sanctuaries are: Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in Mexico City; El Señor de Chalma in the State of Mexico; Nuestra Señora del Patrocinio in Cerro de la Bufa, Zacatecas; Nuestra Señora de Ocotlán in Tlaxcala; San Juan de los Lagos in Jalisco; and Santo Niño de Atocha in Fresnillo. In present-day New Mexico, the most important pilgrimage center, El Santuario de Chimayó, close to Santa Fe, is dedicated to Santo Niño de Atocha and Nuestro Señor de Esquípulas. History of Retablos & Ex-votos 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 Indians by the Spanish, the retablo was an art form that flourished in post conquest Mexico and then ultimately, with the introduction of inexpensive mediums such as tin, 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 virtually 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 which offer thanks to a particular saint in the form of a short narrative. In many events, a small child becomes ill, 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.