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Retablo: Behind the Altar, A Collection of Paul LeBaron Thiebaud

September 24 - December 30, 2006


The Harwood Museum of Art of the University of New Mexico presents the exhibition Retablo: Behind the Altar, A Collection of Paul LeBaron Thiebaud organized by LeBaron's Fine Art, Sacramento, California. The exhibition opens September 24 and will be on view through December 30, 2006. It features a collection of over 100 Mexican tin retablos as well as a handful of relicarios (reliquaries), ex voto paintings and religious sculptures (bultos).  (left: Retablo from the collection of Paul LeBaron Thiebaud)

Paul LeBaron Thiebaud began assembling this collection of retablos when he was only 19 years old. He states: "They were naïve, authentic, magical and inexpensive. Over the years, they have stayed true to these characteristics and so I have continued to pursue them with an almost fanatical zeal." The works in Thiebaud's collection were all made in Mexico by anonymous artisans. Thiebaud collected the works based on their artistic merits rather than their subject or historical significance. He has said of the works: "They are at once reverent and personal, painterly and sculptural, simple and powerful. That man can be so inspired as to reach for the heavens and create such beauty is, in my opinion, the actual religion that is reflected in these treasures." 

Retablos, better known as laminas in Mexico, are small oil paintings on tin, zinc, wood or copper that are used in home altars to venerate Catholic saints or the Holy Family. This genre of folk art, deeply rooted in Spanish history, flourished in Mexico starting in the 17th century and becoming particularly popular in the last quarter of the 19th century with the introduction of inexpensive mediums such as tin. Small retablo factories of trained and untrained artists were established to create these works; some subjects were more popular than others. A typical retablero may have reproduced the same image hundreds, if not thousands, of times in his career.  

There are many Catholic saints, each associated with different situations or needs. For example, San Ysidro Labrador, the patron saint of farmers, is called upon for good weather and agricultural issues such as plentiful crops. He is often invoked just before picnics or the harvest. San Geronimo, the patron saint of scholars and philosophers, is also asked for protection against temptations and want as he spent four years in the forest as a hermit. 

The Thiebaud collection also contains a small group of reliquaries (relicarios) for holy objects, bultos or devotional statues, and ex-votos-paintings on tin or canvas which offer thanks to a patron saint for a blessing received. 

James Eddy of Colonial Arts in San Francisco has said of Paul Thiebaud's collection: "The diversityis a great learning tool for the beginner or advanced enthusiast. It is demonstrative of the broad range in artistic styles, the multiplicity of subjects and saints and perhaps most of all of the evolution of retablo art, beginning with earlier colonial works on copper to the more spontaneous folk masterpieces on tin-plate." 

Retablo: Behind the Altar, A Collection of Paul LeBaron Thiebaud opens September 24 with a public reception from 3-5 pm. The exhibition continues through December 30. Also opening concurrently are Melissa Zink: The Language of Enchantment and Seeing Clearly: Photographs by Mildred Tolbert

A Gallery Talk with Robin Gavin, Curator, Museum of Spanish Colonial Art in Santa Fe, will be held in conjunction with the exhibition Thursday, October 26th at 7pm


Selected artwork label text from the exhibition

Passion of Christ
Representations of the Passion of Christ are some of the most common retablo subjects, meant to inspire meditation upon Christ's sacrifices for humanity and on Christian salvation. The images usually depict Jesus upon the cross, flanked by Mary and John the Evangelist or various penitents. Another popular variation shows figures in flames below the foot of the cross, representing souls in purgatory praying for their sins on earth and awaiting entrance into heaven. The Thiebaud Collection also includes images from the Passion story such as the various tortures Christ endured, the grieving Mary Magdalene, and Veronica's Veil or Rostro Divino, the cloth used to wipe Jesus' face on the way to his crucifixion that miraculously retained the imprint of his features.
In the 1700s, the Spanish monarchy placed Spain and all its territories in the New World under the protection of the Virgin Mary, leading to an explosion of images of her as patron saint of numerous towns and holy sites. She also became the special protectress and intercessor between her son, Jesus, and penitents for his help and favor. Two popular incarnations shown here include Our Lady of Refuge of Sinners (Nuestra Senora Refugio de Pecadores) and Holy Mother of the Light (La Madre Santisima de la Luz). It has been noted that one-quarter of all the images of the Virgin Mary produced in northern Mexico depict Our Lady of Refuge: a figure in red gown and blue mantle, enthroned in clouds with Jesus standing on her lap. A more unusual image in this collection is that of the
Virgin of the Apocalypse (La Virgen del Apocalipsis).
One of the most intriguing aspects of the retablo tradition is the regional variation in the saints depicted. A number are common throughout Spain, Mexico and America such as San Geronimo (St. Jerome), St. Anthony (San Antonio) and St. Francis. Others are unique to a particular area. One unusual survival is the cult of Saint John of Nepomuk (San Juan Nepomuceno), a Czech priest martyred in Prague in 1393 whose cult was suppressed everywhere but in the Czech and Slovak republics and somehow made its way to Mexico.
Ex Votos
Ex votos are offerings of thanks commissioned by those who have received a blessing. They usually include both a text that describes the answered prayer and an image illustrating it. Ex votos follow a standard format. The upper zone of the image (often with a blue background) depicts the saint whose help was requested; the middle zone, with touches of red for emphasis, shows the event that took place; and the lowest zone contains the written inscription usually in brown or black.
Relicarios are small holy images meant to be worn as pendants.
Bultos are the three-dimensional counterparts of retablos. They are freestanding sculptures of Christ, the Virgin Mary, saints and other holy figures, made of wood that is gessoed and then often painted. They can be small household devotional images or large-scale figures meant for churches and sanctuaries or to be carried in religious processions.
La Mano Poderosa (The Powerful Hand)
The Powerful Hand depicts the right hand of God. The figures that stand at the top of the four fingers represent St. Joseph, the Virgin Mary, and her parents, St. Joachim and St. Anne. The Christ Child is depicted on the thumb. Often blood is flowing from the stigmata (a nail wound from Christ's crucifixion) into an open chalice which is received by the seven sacrificial lambs below. It symbolizes the all-powerful hand of Christ and serves as a meditation on his story.

rev. 10/30/06

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