Matchbox Retablo from Peru

Ana Perche’s piece of art is a significant piece – personal, historical and theatrical.  Imbued with Mexican colors and art tradition, the piece was reminiscent of the Mexican ‘retablo’  or ‘lumina’ and the Andean retablo.

A retablo, ‘behind the altar’, are occasionally made into a shadow box.  I have 3 little Peruvian retablos that contain miniature nativity scenes.

Retablos by Claudio Jimenez Quispe of Peru


(thanks to Colonial Arts in San Francisco)

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.

Retablos, milagros & laminas – Mexican ex votos

The concept of a votive offering has been around for thousands of years. However, it’s most recent form originated in Italy in the 15th century where wealthy patrons would commission religious pictures in which they themselves were depicted in the scene.

This new votive tradition quickly spread both geographically and also amongst economic classes. The poorer classes would hire a less talented artist to paint their votive offerings. The tradition of votive painting was brought to the New World by Spanish settlers. A

t the end of the 18th century, tin plate became widely available in Mexico and thus, Mexican folk painters discovered a new surface medium for their painting. Because tinplate was so cheap, the practice of offering votive paintings to Jesus, Mary, or one’s favorite saint became very common among the masses in Mexico, and the custom was mostly abandoned by the upper classes.

The words retablo, milagro, lamina and ex voto are used interchangeably to denote a Mexican religious painting. The majority are often painted on a sheet of tin but they are also found on canvas, wood or masonite. The word retablo is used more often than ex voto.

They are an offering given for an answered prayer or request. The petitioner makes a vow or promise to a holy image when there is a need or wish. If the prayer is granted, the petitioner leaves the retablo (exvoto) in the church or chapel where the worshipper seeks grace. In religious terms, these paintings provide a way of expressing devotion to a favored icon.

In cultural terms, they represent one of the few means by which common people can give public expression to their anxieties, needs, fears, and sufferings. This art form is most prevalent in west-central Mexico, which includes the States of Michoacan, Jalisco, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, and Zacatecas. Most retablos are done by “contract” or commissioned artists called “retableros” or “retablistas.” …