Historic & Contemporary Retablos in New Mexico

In the 16th century, Spanish settlers brought a new kind of art to Santa Fe: small, bright devotional images called retablos. These are typically carved or painted images of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, or any number of saints on a panel of wood. The gallery has a number of these beautifully preserved Spanish artifacts on display. 

The settlers who traveled north through Mexico to settle what would eventually be Santa Fe included a mix of pioneers, Franciscan monks, and traders. Faith would endure as a hallmark of Spanish colonialism, as evidenced by the city’s name, which means “Holy Faith”. The same religious devotion naturally passed on to the artwork settlers brought with them and later adapted. 

When retablos were first introduced in Europe during the Middle Ages, they were essentially components for altarpieces. They were painted panels that framed fully sculpted figures. These helped to emphasize specific stories and events that the priest would include in his sermons. Ratablo comes from the Latin word retrotabulum, for “behind the table or altar”. The retablo itself later evolved into a portable altar for conquistadors and missionaries journeying far from home. 

Just as settlers had to adapt to a new way of life upon arrival in the southwest, so too did their art. This was not a place with great stone cathedrals that demanded altarpieces or statues measuring several feet in length. The array of materials available to artists would have been much more limited, not to mention the number of craftsman.

Like a rosary or a crucifix, a retablo can be a product of high craftsmanship or a relatively simple design. Older European examples were made of enamel, metal, or even ivory with finely sculpted and painted features. Mexican retablos were painted on tin, copper, zinc, or wood; and Peruvian examples were generally portable boxed narrative scenes with carved figures. New Mexican retablos are usually painted with water-based paints on locally sourced pine wood. These are modern interpretations that evolved from a melting pot of Spanish colonialism, Mexican folk art, and pueblo Indian craft.

Just like in Europe, South and Central America, the Virgin Mary remains the single most popular subject in liturgical art and naturally the most recognizable. It was sensible to chose a sympathetic figure when so many retablos are displayed in home shrines. Formal upright poses with carefully composed facial features continue to be the norm. Despite this, the figures are often more stylized in contemporary examples, much like characters in Indian ledger drawings. In some cases, the figures will be depicted in clothing like that of Pueblo Indians. Depicting a well-known narrative in contemporary dress is a practice that dates back to the Middle Ages. It serves to make the subject matter more relatable to audiences. 

This is art that makes the intangible tangible. It is an article of faith to direct prayers, which is small enough to hold in your own hands and carry with you. Retablos are also objects of beauty widely collected to decorate homes and public spaces.