Santos y Milagros: Retablos and Ex-Votos

San Luis P., Retablo (commissioned by Inocensio Medina?), 1972, enamel (?) on tin. (Photo courtesy the Author)

TRANSLATION — “I give thanks to the Virgin of San Juan of the Lakes and to Christ the King of the Mountains for the miracle granted of restoring my father’s health.  During the 6 months of being ill with an illness, a dangerous one.  He waz (approximates the misspelling in Spanish) going to be operated on and that was not necessary.” 

When I met my husband many years ago, besides being interested in him, I was fascinated by the small ex-voto he possessed (above), the first I had ever seen.  Retablos (or retablos santos) and their first cousins, ex-votos, are small devotional paintings of saints (retablos) or miracles (ex-votos), introduced into Latin & South America through Catholicism on the heels (or should I say “on the hooves”?) of the Conquistadores. These simple, sometimes surreal, pieces of folk art are very much a part of the larger art traditions at work in Central and South America since the Spanish arrived. The particular brew of indigenous cultures, Spanish colonialism and Catholicism has made for some fascinating, even intoxicating, outcomes over the centuries.  

Initially, only the wealthy could afford retablos, as they were painted on expensive materials, such as canvas, wood, or copper. By the early 1800s, however, cheaper tin-plated steel became widely available, and these paintings provided an accessible way for the masses to possess, in the case of a retablo, an icon of a saint on the home altar that would ensure health, fertility, or general good luck.  When an individual was rescued from dire circumstances (e.g.saved from drowning, severe illness, death, etc.),  a specially-commissioned ex-voto documented the intercession from Christ or the appropriate saint. Executed largely by untrained artists, ex-votos unlike retablos,  contained the story in childish scrawl (complete with misspellings), which only adds to their naïve and utterly enchanting quality.  Although the tradition endures, the popularity of these paintings as devotional items pretty much peaked in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

A robust collectors’ market thrives, however, spurred on, I suspect, by the legitimacy conferred on this art form by major museums in Mexico City (Museo Franz Mayer, Museo Nacional de Antropología,both fantastic places to visit on any trip to DF) and the American Southwest. The retablo collection at New Mexico State University totals over 1700.   

Want more?

Colonial Arts —A reliable Bay Area source of Spanish colonial artifacts and a source of great retablos images.  I’ve always visit their booth at the annual Tribal Arts Show.

Art & Faith in Mexico: The 19th Century Retablo Tradition

For a wonderful connection (with pictures) between Romania’s Merry Cemetary and Mexican ex-votos—Paula’s Backlog

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