Retablos, better known as 'laminas' in Mexico, are small oil paintings on tin, 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. Symbolic, allegorical, historical, folkloric and spiritual are just a few of the words that best describe this unique art form.

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. With some exceptions, mostly untrained artists from the provinces worked to produce and reproduce these sacred images; some subjects painted more prolifically than others. A typical "retablero" 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 invoked 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 soldier returns safely from war, or a favorite animal finally wanders home. The petitioner, grateful for this miracle, dedicates a small painting (with a short testimonial) to the respective patron Saint.

These unique art forms are a hybrid of centuries old Catholic iconography and indigenous artistry; reflecting the historical, cultural and religious links between "old" and "new" worlds.


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