New Mexico State University Art Gallery, Williams Hall

Las Cruces, NM



El Favor de los Santos: The Retablo Collection of New Mexico State University


La Sagrada Familia, the Holy Family. La Mano Poderosa, the Powerful Hand. Nuestra Senora del Refugio, Our Lady of Refuge. The images of hope and faith have graced countless home altars in Mexico and the Southwest United States.

Known as retablos, these small oil paintings of religious figures, usually on tin, have obvious links to the strong Catholicism of the Spanish explorers who colonized vast areas of the New World. But they also have roots in Mexico's pre-Columbian culture, according to scholars who are taking a closer look at the art form. (left: La Sagrada Familia, The Holy Family. Anonymous, Mexico. From the New Mexico State University Art Gallery collection)

A major exhibition at the New Mexico State University Art Gallery in Las Cruces aims to show as never before the cultural context of the retablo. "El Favor de los Santos: The Retablo Collection of New Mexico State University" opens Nov. 21 at the University Art Gallery and remains on display there through Feb. 7, 2000. After that, the exhibition will travel for three years to museums in Mexico, the United States and Spain. It is the most comprehensive exhibition to date on the subject of 19th century Mexican retablos, says Gallery Director Charles Lovell. It will feature 180 retablos and related works from the gallery's collection of more than 1,700 pieces -- the largest public collection of Mexican retablos in the country -- plus about 75 works of art borrowed from institutions such as the Museo Franz Mayer and the National Museum of Anthropology, both in Mexico City. (right: La Mano Poderosa/Las Cinco Personas, The Powerful Hand/ The Five Persons. Anonymous, Mexico. From the New Mexico State University Art Gallery collection)

"The intent is to show the relationship of retablos to other forms of votive art from pre-Columbian times to the present," Lovell said. The Aztecs, for instance, mass produced clay images of deities that were venerated in households before the arrival of the Spanish. "El Favor de los Santos" will include a recreation of an Aztec household altar. Other installations that will help explain the retablo tradition include a baroque altarpiece, showing the European influence; a typical 19th century bedroom shrine from Mexico; and a contemporary altar, showing how the tradition continues today.

Although derived from a variety of sources, the retablos are distinctly Mexican. The country's art, "like Mexican culture in general ... must be understood as a separate, distinct phenomenon, related to Spanish culture in many ways but just as often finding its own values," wrote Marcus B. Burke, curator of paintings at the Hispanic Society of America in New York. "Nowhere is this more apparent than in the rich and varied imagery of the santos and retablos." Burke is one of a dozen scholars whose essays will appear in a full-color catalog for "El Favor de los Santos." He and others who have studied the NMSU retablo collection will share their research at a symposium in Las Cruces Dec. 13 and 14. (left: El Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, The Sacred Heart of Jesus. Anonymous, Mexico. From the New Mexico State University Art Gallery collection)

Most Mexican tin retablos were produced in the latter part of the 19th century, said Elizabeth Zarur, assistant professor of art at NMSU and co-curator of the exhibition. In the 1830s, Mexico began producing tin for roofing and other uses, giving artists a cheap material for mass producing the devotional paintings that were in great demand in the country. At the turn of the 20th century, however, inexpensive chromolithography replaced oil-on-tin retablos, "so we're talking about only 70 years," Zarur said. (right: La Trinidad, The Trinity. Anonymous, Mexico. From the New Mexico State University Art Gallery collection)

Perhaps 10 to 15 percent of all retablos were painted by academically trained artists, working on commission for churches or individuals who could afford them, Lovell said. "Most retablos were done by self-trained folk artists," he said. "They were mass produced in workshops and sold near sanctuaries."

A related form of art featured in the exhibition is the ex-voto, which combines visual images and text to depict a miraculous cure or rescue. "With the ex-voto, the artist had more freedom," Zarur said. "The top section usually has a painting of a scene, which might be an accident or an illness." The image of a saint or holy figure is another visual part of the ex-voto, she said, and the legend explains what favor was requested and granted. "It is a public testimony that a miracle happened," she said. The ex-voto section of the exhibition will include examples of the art form and photo-murals showing how ex-votos are displayed publicly at three sanctuaries in Mexico and at the Santuario de Chimayo in northern New Mexico.

A members-only preview for Friends of the Gallery will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 20. The exhibition opens on Sunday, Nov. 21, and a public reception will be held at the gallery from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 23.

Major support for the exhibition has come from the Rockefeller Foundation Museum Program, the U.S./Mexico Fund for Culture, the Stockman Family Foundation, the New Mexico Office of Cultural Affairs, and the New Mexico Arts Division.

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rev. 10/20/10

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