During my recent stay in Santa Fe, I visited the Spanish Colonial Museum of Art and developed an affection for the retablo because it is art for worship, all done in a primitive style that creates an atmosphere of childlike faith (Matthew 18:1-4).
Retablo is the word used to refer to paintings on wood in New Mexico. This term seems to have become popular in the early 20th century; historically, paintings on wood were listed in colonial documents as pinturas sobre madera (paintings on wood), or something similar. Retablos were typically pine boards that were sawn, adzed, and sanded into shape. They were then covered with a layer of gesso and painted with water-based pigments, most of which were made locally. The retablo tradition in New Mexico began about 1750 and continues to the present day. Historically, virtually all retablos made in New Mexico were religious in subject matter, the images based on traditional Catholic iconography painted in a local style.
The altar screen as an art form originated in Spain in the 14th century. From there the design, construction, and iconography were brought to the Americas and eventually to New Mexico. The Spanish word for altar screen used in all historic documents is retablo. The main altar screen in a church was often referred to as the retablo mayor (main altar screen); the side or nave altar screens were retablos colaterales (collateral altar screens), sometimes shortened to colaterales. The term “reredos” which has been used in recent years to refer to these screens, is actually from late Middle English, derived from Old French meaning “behind” or “in back of.” This term seems to have been popularized by early 20th century Anglo-American writers supplying Anglo-American terminology for the artwork they found in the Hispanic Southwest. It never appears in colonial documents.
Altar screens are usually composed of multiple images, both paintings and sculptures, set in a wooden framework. The images may be of the Virgin Mary, Christ or the Saints. They may depict individual holy personages or they may combine to tell a story, such as the life of Christ or the miracles performed by a Saint. The central image was (and is) typically the Virgin Mary, Christ, or the patron Saint of the church.