A new special exhibition at the Museum of South Texas History showcases a traditional folk art form from Mexico. “Saints Preserve Us: Retablos, Ex Votos, and Related Objects from the Museum Collection” features primarily retablo and ex voto paintings of holy figures in the Roman Catholic faith. The paintings date from the late 1800s through the mid 1900s.

The terms retablo and ex-voto often are used indiscriminately for two types of  paintings found in Latin America, particularly Mexico.  As defined by many collectors, however, a retablo (or retablo santo or lámina) is a painted depiction of a holy figure.  The word stems from the Latin retro tabulum, behind the altar, indicating the original placement of such works.  Sharing a history with the word votive, the term ex-voto indicates a painting (or other item) offered as a vow of gratitude.

Both types of paintings have roots in both the Old and New World.  Europeans arriving in New Spain found that their centuries-old tradition of religious images or icons was a useful way of disseminating Christianity among the native population who could not read or write.  The Catholic Church particularly encouraged the creation of retablos in their efforts to substitute Christian and European holy figures for the native gods, and the ex-voto tradition easily took root among New World peoples already accustomed to making offerings to household gods.  

Early retablos were often painted by trained artists on canvas, wood, or copper for use by wealthy patrons or a church.  With the invention in the late eighteenth century of a process to plate tin on iron, artists discovered a new and inexpensive medium. Tin-plated iron sheets provided a smooth and long-lasting surface that was easily painted.  Relatively untrained folk artists in Mexico adopted the medium, and throughout much of the nineteenth century they produced large quantities of retablos. Stock images of Christ, the Holy Family, the Virgin Mary, and popular saints could be purchased by people of limited means for their personal devotion at home.    

While the retablo was often a stock piece, an ex-voto was a commissioned work. The same retablista or pintor de retablos often produced both types of images. A person whose prayer was answered might commission a retablista to commemorate the event in an ex-voto painting.  The petitioner and the holy figure usually were included in the image.  In one ex-voto, a woman and her baby kneel before Saint Anthony, one of the patron saints of infertile or pregnant women.  Typically, an inscription along the bottom of the ex-voto described the blessing received and the person’s gratitude.  Unlike a retablo used in the home, the completed ex-voto would be placed in a church or shrine as a public display of thanks.   

In depicting the dramatic event described to him – a miraculous healing, a shipwreck rescue – the painter of an ex-voto often used great imagination and a creative palette of colors.  Painters of retablos, however, often copied styles from fine art paintings or prints, and they relied on iconography fixed by church tradition to produce readily identifiable holy figures.  In the Case collection of retablos, for instance, Saint Joseph is easily identified by his blooming staff and green and gold robes, Saint Vincent Ferrer by his monastic robes and wings, and Saint Peter by his keys.  Despite the limitations of symbolism and colors, however, the retablista used decorative details and facial expressions to create holy portraits of great charm, producing devotion in the faithful and admiration in those who collect them today as folk art.    

The spread of inexpensive steel engravings and color lithographs eventually led to the demise of devotional retablo painting in its original form.  Usually, today’s retablos, such as those available in the Museum Store, are produced with new techniques or media, often as lovely decorative pieces.  Early retablos and ex-votos remain unmatched in their scarcity, beauty, and historical and religious significance. 

Most of the paintings were donated in 2004 by the late Ronald A. Case, a former mayor of Edinburg.  Mr. Case made the donation in memory of his late wife, Lydia Saldaña Case.  Both long-time supporters of the museum, the two collected the works together during their travels in Mexico.

In addition to the paintings the exhibition includes a hand-cranked sanctus wheel from Mexico, a kneeler from a local ranch, and other objects. “Saints Preserve Us!” is on view in the Museum’s Old Jail Galleries. It is scheduled to run through the summer of 2012.

The new exhibit is included in the fee for regular museum admission.  FRIENDS of the Museum are admitted free as a benefit of FRIENDships. For information on becoming a FRIEND of the Museum, call 956.383.6911 or click here.  The Museum of South Texas History is located at 200 North Closner Boulevard on the Hidalgo County Courthouse square in downtown Edinburg.