Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Prayers in Paint

Etsy seller Rosa Mystica creates religious jewelry, including pieces she makes using vintage Catholic medals.  She also has a special fondness for retablos (or ex-votos), paintings that thank a saint or divinity for help they have given in the past.  These paintings, common in Latin America, depict an instance -- sometimes very strange and unusual! -- of divine intervention.  Rosa Mystica shares her thoughts on retablos here.


I remember the first time I saw a retablo – vibrant colors highlighted a family kneeling in prayer at the bedside of a sick relative while the Virgin Mary looked on in a circle of light up in the corner.  Beneath the image was a description with specific details of the illness and the cure that was brought about through divine intervention by the Blessed Mother answering the family’s prayers. 

I loved it!  I loved the color; I loved the simple devotion of the family; I loved the thought that the saints were hovering over us to answer our prayers; I loved the idea of a thank-you note done in paint to commemorate the miraculous event!  I was hooked and decided to learn more about this style of painting and to try it myself.

Retablos are paintings that serve as visible reminders of the power of prayer.  I’ve found two general types:

  1. A painting of a saint, the Virgin Mary, or religious grouping such as the holy family that has been done like a portrait.  These could be hung in the home just as we might hang pictures of beloved family members that we don’t see very often.
  2. A painting that depicts an event in which someone prayed to a saint or Jesus and received divine help in a specific situation.  These retablos follow a familiar pattern with the “action scene” taking up the most room, the saint appearing higher up observing what’s happening, and a section at the bottom that describes what was going on, which saint was prayed to, and then thanking the saint for help with the situation.  This type of retablo might be hung in a church or in the home as a public way of thanking the saint for his or her help.

Mexican retablos (also known as laminas) are the most well-known and reached the peak of their popularity at the end of the 19th century.  Typically they were painted on tin, but could also be on wood.  A retablo artist (or retablero) might set up shop outside a church with several stock images that could have the details filled in as requests for the paintings were made.  These artists were generally untrained and their paintings are simple and primitive, but could also show great detail and emotion.

I’ve attempted both “portrait” retablos and “action” retablos.  Many people like portrait retablos for gifts.  I’ve done one for my husband who has a special devotion to St. Ignatius and have one hanging in my shop of my favorite saint, Therese of Lisieux. 

The action retablos are a little more challenging – maybe because I haven’t done as many of them.  I’m trying to rely less on training and more on emotion as I do them and remember that they don’t have to be perfect!  Really, that’s what I liked so much about retablos in the first place.  Their simplicity of faith and simplicity of style convey faith in answered prayers.


Erin here again :) My favorite retablo was one I saw in Guatemala. It featured a man who was peeing outside, with a scorpion near his manly bits.   He gave thanks that the scorpion did not bite him!

Here are two other examples of retablos/ex-votos.  

A woman writes that her neighbor's dog had puppies but they were given away, and the thought the woman's baby was her own. However, thanks to the Virgin of Zapopan, the woman was able to get the baby away from the dog before the baby drank the dog's milk. 

A woman writes that she's a bad cook, and her mother told her no one would marry her because of it. However, thanks to St. Pascual, the patron saint of cooks, she is now married to a man who loves to cook.


Leah and Maya said...

The first time I saw these was when I was in Austria, very catholic. There was a church and the whole thing was lined in these photos, then of course living in Antigua there they were again, very interesting.

Deep said...

What exactly is these?is this some kind of art because its looks very very beautiful