Jésucristo, retablo of Jesus Christ by Tesuque artist Juanito
Jimenez, photo © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.
Where to begin? There are so many authoritative sources on the origins of the retablo that I dread trying to give a historical overview. Truth is, I don’t want to. I’ll make a deal, though. At the end of this post, I’ll provide a list of the books that will do exactly that — give anyone who’s interested everything there is to know about retablos.
I’d rather talk about the power of the retablo for Hispanic Catholics in New Mexico. Oh, and here I should clarify — retablos are not unique to my state. They came with the Spaniards during the conquest of the “New World,” then flourished during the colonization of indigenous peoples throughout what was then known as “New Spain.” But the making of devotional art in general — and the retablo, in particular — has thrived for centuries in New Mexico, passed on from generation to generation.
Well, there I go. I guess I can’t get away from at least giving a layperson’s understanding of the retablo. Devout Catholics (and devout believers in saints) in this part of the world use them both as art and for altars in our homes. We pray to them for anything and everything. The retablos depict Jesus, Mary, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, and many saints.
Through the centuries certain attributes persist in each depiction of a particular saint. For example, Santa Verónica. According to legend, she was so moved by the sight of Jesus on his way to Calvary that she pushed her way through the crowds to wipe the sweat and blood from his face. The towel she used was imprinted with his image, and so any time Saint Veronica is painted, she is shown with a cloth bearing Christ’s face.
Certain saints are intermediaries for certain needs. San Yisidro is the saint of the crops; he figures prominently in the Rio Grande Valley. Santo Niño de Atocha is the patron for freeing prisoners. He is believed to have power to perform miraculous rescues for any person in danger, especially from violent acts and for travelers. Mater Dolorosa is invoked for pain and sorrow.
There are patrons for most ailments — Santa Lucía for blindness and clarity; Santa Librata for help with burdensome husbands or unwanted suitors; Santa Ana for the old and mothers, both (it just dawned on me, she’d be ideal for old mothers like myself); San Antonio de Padua to find lost objects, including husbands for unmarried women. The list is endless.
For Valentine’s Day in 1998, when I was seven months pregnant with my youngest daughter, Jim came home from running errands. He had for me a retablo he’d bought from a folk artist who’d set up shop on a vacant lot in our then-neighborhood of Albuquerque’s barrio Griegos. The retablo was new but made to look old.
“That’s why I bought it,” Jim said. He told me the artist had lots of pieces to choose from but that this was the only one that looked ancient. The saint was male, holding a staff in one hand and a three-crowned object in the other and wearing a red robe and golden cape.
The name of the saint wasn’t written on the back of the wooden board, as on most of our retablos, but we found in barely discernable lettering near the figure’s robe this notation: San Ramón Nonatus.
Neither of us had heard of San Ramón Nonatus, so I went to my bookshelves and pulled down a book on saints. (Jim had gotten into the habit of giving me for most birthdays or holidays a new book on saints.) On page 131 of Mexican Folk Retablos by Gloria Fraser Giffords, I found the entry (this saint is also known as San Ramón Nonato). Here is what I read out loud to Jim:
His last name Nonatus — “not born” — commemorates his caesarean birth at the time of his mother’s death. For this reason, he is the patron of midwives and women giving birth.
I looked up from the book. Jim’s mouth was open. Being the types to faint at the sight of blood and the smell of hospitals, we had already decided to birth our baby at home, attended by a midwife. This wasn’t our first home birth, but because I’d been thinking about the challenges of labor with my first child (especially the pain) I had become anxious about this upcoming birth.
As it turns out, when the due date arrived, the umbilical cord was wrapped tightly around my babe’s neck. Our midwife guided me through pushing such that she could gently lift the cord around Em’s head between contractions. Em came out more purple than most newborns, but she was big and healthy and so very alive. She was perfect.
I have over the years given up my faith in the institution of the Catholic Church, much like one finds that a particularly strong yearning has over time finally and quietly faded to nothing. I don’t mean to offend practicing Catholics; my father, some of my siblings, several nieces, nephews, cousins, and friends all attend mass each Sunday. Being who I am — pragmatic and at times challenging of authority — I simply reject the notion that celibate men can understand my particular troubles.
But I have faith in the personajes — Mary, Jesus, and the saints — of my Catholic upbringing. Perhaps that is why I surround myself with these images. So that every day when I wake up, I am reminded of the miracles and protections they provide in this world. And that I know, always, that everything will be OK.
Garden of Eden, retablo by Juanito Jimenez, photo © 2008
by ybonesy. All rights reserved.
- The Saint Makers: Contemporary Santeras y Santeros by Chuck & Jan Rosenak
- Santos & Saints: The Religious Folk Art of Hispanic New Mexico by Thomas J. Steele, S.J.
- Behind the Altar: A Collection of Paul LeBaron Thiebaud, published by the Sacramento State University Library Gallery (this exhibit came to the Harwood Museum in Taos in 2007)
- Mexican Folk Retablos by Gloria Fraser Giffords
- New Mexico Santos: Religious Images in the Spanish New World by E. Boyd
- New Kingdom of Saints: Religious Art of New Mexico 1780-1907 by Larry Frank
- Art & Faith in Mexico: The Nineteenth-Century Retablo Tradition