Retablos are a hauntingly beautiful way to preserve a moment in time; not only the events as they occurred, but, more importantly, the attendant emotions: fear, despair, belief, hope, gratitude. These votive paintings, commissioned to give thanks to a saint for help in overcoming sickness or adversity were mostly painted in enamel on tin. Each contains a short, hand-written narrative describing the event or tribulation, along with a painting depicting it, and a saint or angel overlooking the proceedings. They’re beautifully luminous and dreamlike, with proportions and angles that defy logic, in the perfect way that dreams do. The enamel on tin produces colors that are rich and flat, like the sky before an important event: portentious. 

Retablo of José Cruz Soria, 1960 I give infinite thanks to Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos for having enabled me to cross the border and return with health. José Cruz Soria. San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato. February 2, 1960

Retablo of Virginia Velázquez, mid-20th century. Thanks I give you little Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos for watching over me while crossing the Rio Grande with my four children. Virginia Velázquez. Houston, Texas

These votives, or ex-votos, are the fulfillment of a promise, the resolution of a vow made at the moment of distress. They are prayers, but not asking for anything, rather prayers of gratitude. Time runs backwards and forwards at the same time, memories mingling with anticipation, and saints occupy the same strange space as sufferers, glowing in the corner of their visions. The”retableros” were often untrained artists, but there is something perfect in the way in which they capture the drama of the moment, the depth of spirits, and the glow of hope on the other side. And though they describe dark times, these are all stories with happy endings.

This collection of Mexican folk art paintings spans the entire 20th century, and the stories mostly concern the dangers of travels North and South across the border and of life in the United States. We see tales of sickness, accidents, imprisonment, dangerous border crossings, the difficulty of finding work. Viewing them during the Trump era felt especially poignant, a sad recognition of how much had only changed for the worse. They’re often steeped in the idea that the world of humans–doctors, bosses, policemen–offered nothing to the supplicants, and left them seeking the help of saints. During the pandemic, the prayers for the health of family members, the gratitude for recovery from illness are all too familiar.

Art has the power to heal; art has the power to capture a prayer and to express the gratitude when it is answered. These jewel-like images are so honest and heartfelt; emotion and action, belief, hope, and thankfulness preserved.

Retablo of Tivurcia Gallego, 1917
The misfortune happened to Mrs. Tivurcia Gallego on the 24th day of January of 1917, in the town of Daingerfield, Texas. She was walking along a train track holding a little boy by the hand, and as she went over a bridge, some workers with trunks overtook them in a push car. Being unable to move to either side, she invoked the Holiest Virgin of San Juan and suffered nothing more than a few blows, and the little boy no more than a glancing blow, having freed himself from greater danger. In thanksgiving she dedicates this retablo.

This collection of Retablos was on display at the Princeton University Art Museum in 2019 Learn more here.

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