Retablos — the art of saying thank you in Mexico
A young woman in a yellow nightdress sits bolt upright in bed. A gun is being pointed at her by a stern looking gentleman in a sombrero.
Poking out from beneath the bed, we see the torso of a young man. Is he trying to hide?
In the far corner of the room floats a glowing apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe, serene in a golden and green robe.
Welcome to the world of the retablo.
Retablos are small oil paintings that have been created in Mexico since the 15th Century. They express devotion to Catholic saints in a uniquely vivid way, the name “retablo” roughly translating as “behind the altar”.
The most common form of retablo illustrates a precarious situation that was resolved thanks to the timely intervention of a holy figure. These are called ex-votos (“from a vow”) and are typically painted on a small piece of tin by either a family member or local artist. They are then put on display in the home as a permanent expression of gratitude to the sacred saviour.
The retablo described above, for example, was painted in the Mexican city of Oaxaca in 1960. It includes the following description in Spanish:
“I thank you, Virgin of Guadalupe, because my father didn’t kill my boyfriend when he found him in my room. He got off with fright and marriage.”
Retablo is a popular form of folk art that continues today, an indigenous Mexican style that blends the vibrant colour pigments of its flowers with the enduring influence of its Spanish colonists. They depict situations from the everyday to the bizarre, in paintings that are by turns whimsical and disturbing — but always dramatic.
“I implored the Virgin of Guadalupe so that my husband Pepe wouldn’t lose his fingers when he cut himself with the knife while working in the butcher shop,” explained Señora Azucena Ortiz beneath her grisly 1999 retablo. “I give thanks because he is alright and didn’t lose his fingers.”
“We went to the town to baptise our boy,” explains a retablo painted by Selva Prieto Salazar. “The bus broke down and we had to ride horses. On our way back a viper scared my horse, it reared up, and my baby flew up in the air. But thanks to the Virgin of Zapopan he fell right into the arms of my husband who rode behind me.”
This retablo has an epilogue: “Nothing happened to the baby, he didn’t even got scared because he thought we were just playing. I give infinite thanks for this miracle.”
The paintings that praise saints are known as “retablo santo”, and artists famed for their depiction of holy figures are in high demand, known in Mexico as santero or santera — literally “saint maker”.
But the domestic nature of retablos mean they are often badly damaged when rediscovered, having been displayed in homes for many years before being discarded.
Thankfully retablo enthusiast Sergey Klisunov has preserved this fascinating artform in the world’s largest online collection of retablos.
“In December 2010, I was asked to translate a retablo,” Sergey explains. “I enjoyed the story, so I translated another one… then another. I started to search retablos on the internet. Now I have a big collection of images. And I keep finding new retablos almost every day.”
Some of the situations that require a holy intervention are hard to swallow. One retablo painted in Celaya in 1956 gives thanks to the Virgin of Guadalupe because: “I didn’t sin with a very hot skeleton woman who came to me in the field.” The devotee continues: “I wanted to take her in the field so bad but you delivered me from doing the bad thing.”
Another retablo from Oaxaca explains: “Fidencio and Laureano Trejo went to the cemetery to drink and met a mister who sat on a grave. He wanted to give them a chest full of gold so they would keep enjoying their sin, but suddenly the brothers realised it was a dead man who was speaking with them. They implored Saint Benedict for help to protect them and not to let anything happen to them.”
Having dodged an unholy fate, the retablo concludes: “They promise to cut down on booze and respect the dead.”
Sergey is philosophical about the veracity of these situations. He says: “Although these stories probably never happened, there’s no need to be disappointed because it’s fun.”
A resurgence of interest in retablo took place in Peru in the 1940s, where artist Joaquin Lopez Antay revitalised this folk art form. The acclaimed 2017 Peruvian movie Retablo also sparked new interest, although the devotional art in its story was carved from wood.
A contemporary revival has morphed the retablo into a form of postmodern art. Now creators such as Gonzalo Palacios use retablos to give thanks for Empire Strikes Back actor Billy Dee Williams, the work of Salvador Dali and the development of COVID-19 vaccines.
I’m a huge fan of retablos. While the situations they depict are often hilarious or bizarre, at the core of the retablo is gratitude. They use the materials around them to vividly express a heartfelt appreciation.
This is epitomised by the retablo of two men kissing, literally in front of the flames of their passion:
“We are very happy together and thank the Virgin for having united us.”