The Antique Spanish Colonial Art

Mexican Retablos

Mexican retablos of the 19th century are small oil paintings, usually done on tin, by folk artists with minimal artistic training. The Spanish word retablo is derived from the Latin retro-tabulum, meaning "behind the table," that is, behind the altar. In the European middle ages, the term was used to refer to the large screens that were placed behind altars in churches.

These wooden altar screens were decorated with paintings, wood carving, and sculptures, becoming increasingly ornate over time. Many churches in colonial Mexico had such altar screens. Eventually, the term retablo came to be used in reference to individual paintings on wood, canvas, or other materials. Among some of the common folk in those areas of Mexico where the retablo paintings on tin were produced, they are called láminas, the term retablo being reserved for votive paintings. The related term "santo" refers to an image of a saint, whether painted or sculpted.

In early colonial Mexico, wealthy Spanish or criollo (a person born to Spanish parents in the New World) patrons commissioned religious paintings on canvas. In the 18th century, copper was also used as a surface medium. At that time, the middle classes made do with cruder paintings on wood. Late in the 18th century, British metallurgists developed a technique to bond tin to iron sheets.

This provided a new surface medium for Mexican folk painters, who began to use tin-plated sheets for their religious paintings of saints, or retablos, in the 1820s. By around 1830 tin had replaced copper and canvas as the preferred surface for retablo paintings, and these paintings were now purchased by middle and lower-class mestizo families rather than the wealthy classes.

Because tinplate sheets imported from Britain and the United States came in standard sizes, the dimensions of retablos were also somewhat standardized. The largest size was 14 x 20 inches. Retablo artists cut this size of sheet into successively smaller halves, producing tinplate surfaces of 10 x 14 inches (a very common size), 10 x 7 inches (also very common), 7 x 5 inches, and so forth.

Paintings were commissioned by individuals or purchased from traveling artists and used as part of home altars. These paintings on tin were especially popular in the states of west central Mexico, including San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Querétaro, Jalisco, and Michoacan. Three main centers of production were the cities of Guadalajara, Zacatecas, and Guanajuato. Retablos on tin were produced between the 1820s and 1920s, with the most prolific period being from 1850-1900. Near the end of the 19th century, the influx of color lithographs and other cheap reproductions signaled the end of this tradition. Quality declined as the tin retablo painting tradition faded through the first few decades of the 20th century.

The folk artists who produced retablos in the 19th century painted in a baroque manner, long since superseded by neoclassical and romantic styles in the world of academic painting. They sought to use dramatic poses, chiaroscuro, and realistic portrayals to convey their religious feelings. However, these attempts were naïve, conventionalized, and very often unsuccessful. But of course, the artists and their patrons were not interested in the fashions of academic art. They sought to produce an image to stimulate devotion that was readily identifiable and lovingly decorated. Despite their lack of training, these artists could produce ingenious and spontaneous pictures that conveyed a strong feeling of devotion.

The retablos were painted in a limited range of colors, using reds, blues, and dark yellows, plus flesh tones and an occasional dark green. Sometimes there is an underpainting, typically a burnt sienna color, that is added to the entire surface of the tin, or at least to those parts over which a figure was to be painted. (The underpainting is sometimes called "red bole" for the red clay that was applied over gessoed frames prior to the application of gold leaf.)

This technique caused shadows to appear darker and flesh to appear more warm and alive. These effects are not so apparent today, as the overpainted thin layers of pigment have worn away, making the picture appear darker and less subtle. Also, the combination of layers of varnish, accumulation of soot, and general aging, makes retablos look more somber today than they probably did when originally painted.

With respect to iconography, the artists depicted their Christs, Virgins, and saints in traditional poses with standard iconography for the saints depicted. Thus, there was not a great deal of difference among the various artists in their compositions. Similarity was further fostered by the fact that retablo images were typically copied from other sources. These sources included popular images derived from woodcuts, etchings, and engravings. Such images were widely distributed in Mexico during the 19th century. The sources also included paintings from previous centuries and statues in churches.

The images depicted in retablos are various incidents from Jesus's life, various advocations of the Virgin Mary, and saints. Among the most frequently painted images are Our Lady of Refuge, Mater Dolorosa (the sorrowful mother), el divino rostro (the face of Jesus on Veronica's veil), Saint Joseph, the Holy Family, the Holy Child of Atocha, and Our Lady of Guadalupe.

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