Crucified Christ.jpg

José Aragón, working 1820-37, “Crucifixion,” Museum of Spanish Colonial Art

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.

San Francisco.jpg

Rafael Aragón (ca. 1795-1862), “St. Francis / San Francisco,” Museum of Spanish Colonial Art

St. Christopher.jpg

Rafael Aragón (ca. 1795-1862), “St. Christopher / San Cristóbal,” Museum of Spanish Colonial Art

Christ of Patience.jpg

Quill Pen Santero, mid-19th century, “Christ of Patience,” Museum of Spanish Colonial Art. Although labeled “Ecce Home” (“Behold the Man,” the words Pontius Pilate spoke as he condemned Christ to death by crucifixion), this is actually an image of Christ of Patience, depicting Christ as he sat awaiting his verdict.

San Miguel.jpg

“St. Michael / San Miguel Arcángel,” late 18th – early 19th century, Museum of Spanish Colonial Art

Our Lady of Sorrows.jpg

José Manuel Benavides, early to mid 19th century, “Our Lady of Sorrows / La Dolorosa,” Museum of Spanish Colonial Art

John the Baptist.jpg

Pedro Antonio Fresqu¡s (1749-1831), “St. John the Baptist / San Juan Bautista,” Museum of Spanish Colonial Art


2 thoughts on “Retablos

  1. Gorgeous – thanks for posting. Did you go to any mission-style churches? I wonder what it would be like to worship in such a place.

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