MEXICAN RETABLOS: Painted Miracles
By Virginia Miller
When studying 19th century Mexican painting, one should consider the mainstream of primitive painting that was expressed. Besides the portraits of famous or rich people, wars and symbolic victories (such as Maximilian’s death before a firing squad), one field faithfully covered by painters of Independent Mexico, were regional customs. Two groups of works exist within this general category: those paintings dealing with life inside the small towns and cities, and those expressing day-to-day existence on farms, ranches and haciendas. Beside all this, there is also the religious side of that daily life.
The retablo is one of these manifestations of the art of Mexico. Although retablo really means “altar piece of carved and painted saints,” in Mexico retablo is used to depict something different. They are votive offerings. These retablos are one of the most charming and touching aspects of folk painting. They depict miracles that happen after someone asks for them.
These are very important documents, as they show not only style and thought of the times, but the devotion and trials of the people. They record earthquakes, plagues, revolutions, disasters and afflictions common to mankind. They heighten and make events deeply tragic along with the powerful landscape in which they occur. They are usually painted on metal sheets, tin or copper, ranging in size from two and a half inches by three, to ten by fourteen inches.
Examples of miracles are: a man falls down a mine shaft and is rescued by his saint. Someone is dying and is saved by the household saints to whom prayers and promises are offered. A child swallows a pin and is miraculously saved – the name, date and the pin itself, enormously enlarged, are shown. On a certain date and a given place, a man by the name of Gonzalez, the water carrier, is rescued from under the feet of his stampeding mules. These are pictorial facts. Invariably, the written text: “I therefore devoutly dedicate this…” is added after the description of the miracle.
The person thus benefitted shows his or her gratitude by going to a painter of miracles and ordering the best picture he or she can afford of what had happened. Then it is handed to the church and hung or nailed to the wall near the saint or the image of the Madonna that was invoked at that particular time.
Often the artists do not sign their name to the picture. They paint what they are told to paint, and often they are told precisely how. There is no probability of aesthetic dispute between them and their patron, however, because they agree on the manner of portrayal. The concern of both is recording the event. The artist is confident that what he or she hears and then describes is real. The artist is giving a piece of “news” and there is no feeling that it was not an actual extraordinary event.
A miracle is a thing without chronology. A picture is therefore closer to nature than a story. Even the information about it on a margin below the painting is not a sequence. The name, date, the place, the name of the saint or Madonna who performed the miracle, the vehicle of danger, the nature of the illness are stated as facts, in words like a formula of the composition.
If one is interested in seeing this form of folk religious devotion, you can visit the church of San Juan del Río, or nearer to Lakeside, the main church of Zapopan. The Basílica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, in Mexico City, also has a great collection of very old retablos.