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Retablos, ex-votos: folk art mirroring fervent religious beliefs with unique, rustic charm

At the many official and unofficial religious sites in Mexico believers have left engaging painted, drawn and written descriptions of what they consider to be miracles, or at least divine assistance. These informative, culturally revealing, often rustic versions of occurrence and belief have a rich religious and esthetic history in Mexico.

At the beginning of the 19th century the art of painting religious icons on sheets of tin (popularly called retablos) flourished throughout the central provinces of Mexico. One of the centers of this art included the villages and towns around Guadalajara.

One worship, new gods

Modern interest in culturally distinct art today has elevated the retablo to one of the most important forms of authentic Mexican folk art.

Worship of a household deity is as old as civilization. With the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Roman Catholicism utilized the long-accepted practice of image-worship here by replacing indigenous deities with a new hierarchy of religious personalities, many of them surprisingly similar to the old “pagan” gods of Mexico.

This similarity, plus the primordial impulse to possess the proper supernatural image insuring health and abundance, led to the swift transfer of commitment from the old gods to the Catholic saints, and at once created a demand for paintings, statues and prints depicting the important personages of the new religion. This demand at first was gradually fulfilled by small, relatively inexpensive paintings on wood, bark, cotton cloth and canvas, few of which have survived. In the 1800s with the production and ready availability of tin-plated iron sheets, this burgeoning art form, especially in its later manifestation of ex-votos, took an innovative new direction that would guarantee its products endurance for centuries, providing modern society with a detailed and provocative view of the modes of village religious beliefs in 19th-century Mexico.

Fervent beliefs

Retablos and ex-votos, unsigned and of unknown origins and dates, were painted for and primarily by the common people of Mexico. The paintings mirror the fervent belief of these people, emanating a unique and unsophisticated charm. Retablos were the first widely disseminated, popular folk art that could truly call itself “Mexican” — a grass-roots art form that was an authentic amalgamation of Indian and Spanish.

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