Retablos and Ex-Votos

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Retablos and Ex-Votos

Retablos and ex-votos, religious images whose production has had great flowering in provincial areas of Mexico as well as Peru, where they are sometimes known as santero boxes. Retablo art continues to be made in each of these countries. Before 1800 retablo referred only to the carved, gilded, and painted screens behind (retro) the altars (tabula) of churches. In the nineteenth century the term also meant a small painting of a cult image hung on home altars for private devotion. Subjects included scenes from the life of Christ, the saints, and other venerated persons from the rich Catholic hagiography.

Carried as protection on arduous journeys, retablos reached remote regions of Peru with muleteers and tradesman. Local people began to utilize and create these religious images during animal brandings, healing ceremonies and everyday life.

While the wealthy could commission or import elegant and expensive paintings on copper or canvas, the poor had to be content with more humble works on wood or coarse material. But by the 1820s, the new process of applying tin to thin sheets of iron made paintings on metal cheaper and more available to the common people.

The folk artists (retableros) who painted the images were mostly self-taught, with little or no formal training. Unaware of sophisticated metropolitan movements like neoclassicism or romanticism, they often imitated in naive fashion the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century painting they saw in churches around them. The retablo style derived from copying, often from copies of copies. Details lovingly painted but not always understood were sometimes lost or became merely decorative. Thus the baroque tradition was perpetuated by retablo artists into the twentieth century. Because of their often rustic style and uneven quality characteristic of folk art, retablos can be difficult to date precisely.

The ex-voto (from Latin votum, vow) is a particular kind of retablo, a votive painting of a miracle (milagro). It shows a recovery from an illness, accident, or other misfortune, and was painted either by the person miraculously saved or by a folk artist to hang in the church near the image of Christ or the interceding saint. Since ex-votos usually tell a story, they almost always bear a text that recounts the event and often locates and dates it as well. Because an ex-voto is not based on something copied, the artist could give free rein to his creativity.

Many ex-votos give insight into the customs of the time, for they are full of significant ethnohistorical data: occupations and trades of ordinary people; costumes, furniture, and architecture; popular religion and its cult images; droughts, diseases, conflicts, and accidents—all appear in vivid and refreshing pictures of life among the common people. These genre paintings also give much information on the painters and the donors.

The condition of many retablos and ex-votos leaves much to be desired. Rust and ordinary wear and tear have taken their toll, and numerous nail holes show they have been rehung many times. The desire for newer images has resulted in many ending up in antique stores or flea markets, and churches have had to clear out older votive paintings (thereby making them ex-votos) to make room for the new.

The development of color lithography and other mechanical ways of reproducing images greatly lessened the demand for the retablero's handiwork, though new work reflecting contemporary themes continues to resonate. One of Mexico's greatest and most popular turn-of-the-century artists, José Guadalupe Posada, mass-produced prints of retablos (even showing the nail holes); he also illustrated miracles and disasters just as the ex-voto artists had. The modern art movements of Mexico certainly had their roots in this kind of painting. Frida Kahlo's style was influenced by ex-voto painting, and Diego Rivera was so inspired by the freshness and naive charm of this art that in the 1920s he wrote articles on folk or popular art in Mexican Folkways and other magazines. Typical Peruvian retablos of the twentieth century have three scenes, one depicting Christ's birth, one the harvest, and one the blood festival depicting the Andean condor locked in struggle with the Iberian bull. Nicario Jimenez Quispe is a popular Peruvian retablero artist from Arequipa. In the San Blas neighborhood of Cuzco, the Mendívil family workshop established by Hilario Mendívil (1929–77) continues producing fine works of art during the new millennium.

See alsoKahlo, Frida; Rivera, Diego.


Roberto Montenegro, Retablos de México: Mexican Votive Paintings, translated by Irene Nicholson (1950); "Retablos mexicanos," in Artes de México 106 (1968).

Gloria Kay Giffords, Mexican Folk Retablos: Masterpieces on Tin (1974).

Martha B. Robertson, Magic, Miracles, and Mystery (1984).

Gloria Fraser Giffords et al., The Art of Private Devotion: Retablo Painting of Mexico (1991).

Additional Bibliography

Centro Cultural/Arte Contemporáneo (Mexico); Fundación Cultural Televisa (Mexico). Dones y promesas: 500 años de arte ofrenda (exvotos mexicanos). México, D.F.: Centro Cultural/Arte Contemporáneo: Fundación Cultural Televisa, 1996.

Durand, Jorge, and Douglas S. Massey. Miracles on the Border: Retablos of Mexican Migrants to the United States. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1995.

Giffords, Gloria Fraser. Mexican Folk Retablos. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992.

San Cristóbal Sebastián, Antonio. Esplendor del barroco en Ayacucho: Retablos y arquitectura religiosa en Huamanga. Lima: Banco Latino: Ediciones Peisa, 1998.

Toledo Brückmann, Ernesto. Retablos de Ayacucho: Testimonio de violencia. Lima: Editorial San Marcos, 2003.

Zarur, Elizabeth Netto Calil, and Charles M. Lovell. Art and Faith in Mexico: The Nineteenth-Century Retablo Tradition. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001.

                              Martha Barton Robertson