Painted devotional images of saints and other holy persons, called retablos, are used primarily by Mexican peoples as objects of veneration and to seek favors. A splendid collection of twenty-eight retablos, painted on tin, has been graciously donated to the Lowe Art Museum by prominent Philadelphia and Miami art collectors, Joseph and Janet Shein. The gift is an important addition to the Lowe’s collection of santos.* They are on view for the first time at the Lowe.
When the Spanish came to the New World, they brought significant changes, one of the most lasting of which was their religion, Catholicism. As the desire to possess a sacred object that would ensure health, fertility, and abundance of crops led to a transfer of beliefs from pagan images to those of the Church, religious imagery appeared.
In the 19th century, as the Spanish colonial population increased in and around what are today Mexico and New Mexico, imported religious ornaments were not plentiful enough to satisfy the needs of these people, who very pious and dedicated to the church. Retablos responded to the demand for devotional objects of worship used in every home, as well as in churches.
For believers, retablos are much more than images. They are imbued with a saint's spirit, which can be invoked through devotion and prayer. Retablos are intermediaries between heaven and earth who can communicate with God on behalf of their devotees. Saints may be asked to help cure an illness, bring consolation for a loss, avert a disaster, or otherwise provide for the physical and psychological well-being of believers and their loved ones. A saint's power arises from his/her ability to perform requested favors or miracles. Devotees are responsible for keeping the saint satisfied through acts of devotion, and by acknowledging publicly any favor received. Although retablos were hung and placed in churches, colonists also installed them in their homes, especially in the sala or living room, where they could be venerated daily.
This tradition continues today, even as retablos are recognized as an original and true folk art form, in demand by museums and collectors all over the world.
* The term santos includes both two-dimensional and three-dimensional imagery.
Above Image Captions:
(top) Unknown Artist, Mexico, El Divino Rostro [Veronica's Veil or The Divine Face] (detail), 19th century, oil on tin in painted wood artist-made frame, 13 1/4 x 9 1/2", Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph D. Shein, 2010.35.10
(bottom) Unknown Artist, Mexico Santa Librata [Saint Wilgefortis], 19th century, oil on tin, 13 3/4 x 10", Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph D. Shein, 2010.35.8