Mexican Retablos

Mexican retablos are small, colorful oil paintings, generally painted on tin, zinc, wood or copper. The term retablo, comes from the Latin retro tabula, or “behind the altar”.

altar on a wooden wall
Photo by Genadi Yakovlev on

Originally, retablos were large paintings which hung behind altars in Catholic churches, that depicted saints, Jesus, or the Virgin Mary.  

In Mexico, retablos became small devotional paintings that devout Mexicans would commission as ex–votos (votive offerings). These were given in fulfillment of a vow or in gratitude for divine intercession.

This process was originally introduced to convert native people to Catholicism. Retablos reflected traditions embedded in Mexican culture by Spanish colonization and the Catholic Church

Retablos flourished in post conquest Mexico then in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.   This genre of folk art represented the traditional religious beliefs in 17th, 18th and 19th century Mexican culture.

Essentially, the traditional ex–votos were adapted to present Catholic iconography with bright and vibrant styles of indigenous folk art.

Retablos were displayed in home altars, shrines, or churches. They were used in home altars to venerate Catholic saints.

Retablos were usually produced by anonymous artists. Artists produced and reproduced the same images. These paintings were sold to devout believers who displayed them in home altars to honor patron Saints.

Parallel to retablos, ex-votos are devotional paintings on tin or canvas with a short narrative that offers thanks to a particular saint.

In many of the scenarios in ex-votos/retablos, a child becomes ill, a favorite animal is lost, or a family escapes death. The believer then dedicates the small painting with a short testimonial, in gratitude to the respective Saint for the miracle received.

This antique retablo reflects the thanks a family gives to a specific Saint for the recuperation of the illness of a family member.
Retablos are usually made up of three parts: a painted scene depicting the miracle, an image of the saint or deity invoked by the worshipper, and a written description that places the miracle in context.
  In Mexico retablos are also known as laminas.

The influence of this popular folk art form is noted in the work of contemporary Mexican artists such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

In summary, Mexican retablos are a combination of old Catholic iconography, indigenous artistry, and Spanish traditions.

Retablo of Our Lady of Ocotlan

19th Century folk retablo

Author: AllGoodsOnline