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Expressions of Faith

Many of the world’s most treasured creations—paintings, sculptures, buildings, music— are examples of religious art. From the Parthenon to Michelangelo’s pietà, the buddhas of Asia to the medieval altarpieces of Europe, ancient cave paintings to Raphael’s madonnas, religious faith has motivated artistic expression.

Examples from renowned fine artists are widely known and admired. Folk art also has a rich tradition of devotional works. Among these are santos, small paintings and carvings that are important expressions of faith in most Hispanic cultures.

The best known category of santos are called retablos. The two-dimensional painted images reached their artistic peak in colonial New Mexico, and have been attracting increasing interest among collectors in the last 100 years. Skinner was pleased to offer three fine examples of the form in its December 17th, 2021 American Indian and Tribal Art sale.

Saint Francis of Assisi retablo
Saint Francis of Assisi, holding a cross and skull,
anonymous, early/mid 19th century. 14 1/2 x 8 3/4 in.
Sold for $1,188
 Unknown Saint retablo, attributed to Antonio Molleno
Unknown Saint, attributed to Antonio Molleno,
early 19th century. 13 1/8 x 8 1/4 in.
Sold for $1,625
 Saint Gertrude the Great, follower of Jose Aragon retablo
Saint Gertrude the Great, follower of Jose Aragon,
early 19th century. 13 1/2 x 9 1/4 in.
Sold for $1,750

These retablos were all originally acquired in Santa Fe, NM, in 1927. The 1920s were the period when New Mexican devotional folk art was coming into its own as a collecting interest, and many good examples of traditional craftsmanship were available. The materials used and the artistry of the imagery attest to their relatively early origins.

The word retablo comes from the Latin phrase retro tabula, literally “behind the altar,” where paintings and sacred images were placed in medieval churches for the education of usually illiterate congregations. In Spanish colonies, small versions of these devotional objects held a place of honor in a great many private homes.

The retablos cherished by Roman Catholic families in the New World were not themselves objects of worship. They were rather objects of veneration and aids to prayer. Their role is often compared with that of icons in Russian Orthodox belief, or the richly decorated medieval devotional works such as missals and books of hours.

The golden age of retablos in Latin America (they were and are also popular in Puerto Rico and the Philippines) spanned the mid 18th century up the late 1800s. These visual aids to prayer were especially prized in New Mexico, where a devout Catholic population was thinly spread over a very large territory, with little access to churches and very few priests.

Saint Barbara retablo, attributed to Jose Aragon
Saint Barbara, attributed to Jose Aragon,
circa 1830. 16 ¾ x 9 in.
Sold for #16,100

Retablos were believed to induce spiritual qualities of respect, devotion, and humility for the entity that they represent. This was usually a member of the Holy Family or a saint of particular meaning for the owner: a namesake or a saint connected to the person’s occupation or needs. Especially popular for their symbolism were Saint Lucy, who protected against ailments of the eyes, Saint Lawrence against burns, and Saint Isadore the Laborer, patron saint of farmers.

The dedicated artisans who created retablos and other santos were called santeros, or saint-makers. (Santeras, female makers of religious art, are not known prior to the 20th century.) Santeros were largely self-taught laymen often noted for their piety. It was thought that the more religious the maker, the more powerful were the devotional articles he created.

Early retablos made in the New World were painted on canvas or hide, primarily by Franciscan brothers. Settlers in New Mexico had little access to these images and scant money to buy them, so developed their own distinctive means and methods of creating religious art. Santeros in New Mexico initially painted their retablos on hand-adzed wood panels, making their paints with pigments derived from local minerals and plants.

By the mid 19th century tin, used for making roofs and for commercial canned goods, became widely available. In one of the early examples of recycling, scraps of the light-weight metal gradually replaced wood panels as a support for retablos. In the 20th century, santeros began to make use also of Masonite and plastic supports, and acrylic paints.

Two large Mexican tin retablos, late 19th century. One depicts the Virgin Mary, the other a dramatic scene inscribed in Spanish “The powerful hand of God,”
Sold for $1,107

The devotional images created by santeros include other forms in addition to retablos. Three-dimensional carvings known as bultos were also popular aids to prayer, intermediaries between worshipers and the sacred figures represented. Early New Mexican bultos were carved of cottonwood or aspen, as hardwoods were not available locally.

Bulto of St. Bonaventura, by Jose Rafael Aragon

Bulto of St. Bonaventura, by Jose Rafael Aragon,
circa 1826-1850.
Sold for $5,228

The sculpted and painted figures, prominent in both churches and homes, were often made with movable jointed bodies. Bultos were carried in processions on certain occasions, such as saint’s name day, where they often were given elaborate new clothes.

In homes, the bulto often had a very personal relationship with worshipers. If a prayer were granted, a fresh coat of paint or simple offerings might be given. (And occasionally if a plea was ignored, the bulto would be turned to face the wall, or put away in a drawer or closet.)

Other aids to faith that santeros created were ex-voto paintings, similar to retablos. These images, which often included an explanatory inscription, were usually executed in oil paint on tin. An ex voto commemorated a specific happy or fortunate event, often perceived as miraculous, in the life of the person who commissioned it.

 Eight polychrome Mexican tin ex votos
Eight polychrome Mexican tin ex votos,
mid 20th century.
Sold for $554

As is frequently the case with folk art, and devotional art in particular, the names of the early santeros are mostly unknown. Their work was undertaken out of piety and for the greater glory of God. Until relatively recently, pieces were mostly unsigned and undated, both as an indication of humility and often because the craftsmen were illiterate. The identities of only a few golden age New Mexican santeros are known. The short list includes the names José Rafael Aragón, Juan Ramón Velásquez, and the Quill Pen santero.

New Mexico, during its hundred-year isolation, developed distinctive devotional art whose piety and sincerity resonate today. Skinner is proud to able to offer these expressions of faith to collectors in its twice-yearly American Indian and Tribal Art sales.


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