NEW YORK – When Spain colonized Mexico (which included parts of the American West) in the 1500s, they not only expanded their empire and reaped riches. They also introduced Roman Catholicism to the native population.
Along with crosses and rosaries, Franciscan friars imported santos retablos (sacred tablets) hand- painted devotional panels featuring sacred images. Small ones adorned portable altars, for use in travels. Larger, lavishly gilded ones backed permanent church altars.
Within a century, retablos evolved into small, personal sacred paintings, reflecting humankind’s age-old desire to communicate directly with the Divine. According to Gloria Fraser Giffords in Mexican Folk Retablos, early ones, executed on canvas or copper, usually featured refined images worked by academically trained artists. Depictions of the Virgin Mary, God the Father, Christ, the apostles, martyred saints, and archangels were most common. These are highly valued by collectors and museums alike.
By the early 1800s, however, devout, untrained, provincial artists painted holy images on small, inexpensive, tin-plated iron sheets. Their humble works, commissioned or made in bulk, were beloved by the poor. They not only figured publicly in prayers for abundant harvests and healings, but were also displayed in churches, shrines and private homes.
These bright, simple, stylized designs were likely copied from imported engravings, woodcuts, and church artwork. Since most of the poor could not read, holy images are characterized by what they traditionally wore, what they carried, as well as tools of their trade.
San Mateo (Saint Matthew), patron saint of accountants, tax collectors and bankers, for instance, often appears with open ledgers, quill and ink wells. Archangel Michael, patron saint of soldiers, mariners, police officers and paratroopers, battles evil with a fiery sword. Archangel Rafael, patron saint of travelers, the blind and the ailing, along with a vial of healing balm, clasps a walking staff.
As most santo retablos were derived from copies and copies-of-copies, many eventually lost original detail or became solely decorative in nature. Few were signed. Yet certain shared technical or artistic styles suggest creation by particular families, workshops or individuals. Those primed with reddish clay or burnt-sienna paint, featuring figures with heavy-lidded eyes and finely shaped hands, for example, are known as “red bole” retablos. Those depicting simply designed Virgins in minimal pastels are commonly attributed to the anonymous “Skimpy Painter.”
Those depicting saints with pouty, “bee-stung lips” are commonly attributed to “Bee-Sting Lips Painter.”
(Some now believe these artists were, respectively, Agustin Barajas and Concepcion Avila.)
Ex-voto folk retablos, like santos retablos, were also drawn on small tin sheets. Some, depicting soldiers, matadors or circus performers, for instance, request heavenly protection from danger. Others request specific blessings like safe stagecoach travel, healthy chickens or rain in the dry season.
Ex-votos were also commissioned by survivors who overcame life’s tribulations – anything from morning hangovers, lost love, broken farm machinery and sewing machine mishaps, to dramatic injuries or illnesses – through Divine Intervention.
Each portrays the heavenly being who performed the miracle, hovering above a depiction of that event. A short narrative, often penned in regional, tricky-to-translate Spanish, follows. These unique, public tokens of gratitude were generally placed near shrines or in churches.
An unusual example, dated 1883, reveals how a man (in an impeccable gray suit), while falling from a hot air balloon 170 meters above the earth, was saved through his wife’s prayer, “invoked with true heart,” to Our Señora of San Juan (Blessed Mother Mary).
Another, roughly translated, reads, “I dedicate this little retablo to Santo Nino de Atocha (Christ Child) who saved me from my husband who wanted to kill me, because evil tongues had told him gossip about me. Erminia Romero Mexico 1912.”
Since ex-votos were created by the thousands, many were traditionally discarded to make room for more. Yet scores survived. Artemis Gallery, explains Sydelle Rubin-Dienstfrey, fine art specialist and manager of its research department, currently sources them from galleries, art dealers, and private collections across the country and abroad.
“Many find their religious iconography or their folk art aesthetic appealing,” she adds. “Others find their narratives of family tragedies or expressions of gratitude for cures or good fortune intriguing. Collectors always love it when a piece has a fabulous story to tell.”