Divine intercession, miracles, blessings, and gestures of appreciation: retablos and ex-votos were a main form of devotion to saints and the Holy Family for nineteenth-century Mexican families. Created largely by self-taught artists, retablos were used as objects of veneration in home worship; a way for the faithful to continue their personal relationship with the divine. "El Favor de los Santos," on display through April 20, 2008, includes over one hundred retablos and ex-votos from the University Art Gallery at New Mexico State University.
With the nineteenth century came mass-produced iron-coated tin sheets and Mexican legislation seeking to separate church and state. The new laws increased the need for private devotion. The affordable medium created a high demand for retablos. Created largely by self-taught artists, retablos were used as objects of veneration in home worship; a way for the faithful to continue their personal relationship with the divine. Home altars were highly personalized and reflected the intimate relationship a family shared with particular saints. Retablos and other objects allowed for the creation of an intimate story of faith.
The popularization of tin retablos illustrated the special role of the saints and other religious images in the daily lives of Catholics in New Spain. For the common people of Mexico, these images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the vast litany of saints were accessible for reasons that went beyond affordability. Placed on home altars, the images were no longer lofty symbols of an official religion but were comfortable members of the family, dependable in good times and bad. From illness to marriage, gambling to birthing to natural disaster, their healing powers were both all-encompassing and site-specific.
Retablos did not die out at the beginning of the twentieth century however. “Although painted tin was largely replaced by prints at that time, today santeros continue the tradition of painting on different media, and altars are still created in homes”, said René Harris, curator of the exhibition and assistant director of the Palace of the Governors/New Mexico History Museum.
An example of new devotional mediums is artist Randy Martinez’s “Chimayo,” displayed in the exhibit. Martinez is a well-known low rider muralist from Chimayó, New Mexico. Using a car as a canvas, “Chimayo” is a combination of contemporary religious art forms and santero expression. Devotional iconography once reserved for the privacy of churches and home altars can be shared with family and the community.