Painted Saints from New Mexico

Posted in catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on September 25, 2009

From ArtDaily.org, 4 July 2009:

A Century of Retablos: The Janis and Dennis Lyon Collection of New Mexican Santos, 1780–1880

Josyln Art Museum, Omaha, NE, 5 July 5 — 4 October 2009


Catalogue by Charles Carrillo and Thomas Steele (Hudson Hills, 2007), $60, ISBN:978-1555952730

A rich tradition of religious painting flourished in New Mexico during the Spanish colonial period prior to 1912. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, self-taught painters in New Mexican villages established workshops to produce devotional images called retablos. These colorful narrative panels consisted of images of Christian saints painted on wood, earning for their creators the title of santeros — or saint makers. These small paintings were sold to devout believers who displayed them in home altars to honor their patron saints. Virtually hundreds of saints were represented, each invoked to remedy a different situation.

The exhibition A Century of Retablos: The Janis and Dennis Lyon Collection of New Mexican Santos, 1780–1880 at the Joslyn Art Museum, July 5 through October 4, introduces retablos to museum audiences and teaches about the methods of creating these beautiful panel paintings.

A Century of Retablos is organized by the Phoenix Art Museum. The exhibition and accompanying catalogue have been generously supported by the National Endowment for the Arts through its ‘American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius’ program.

A Century of Retablos features 93 wooden panels, all created during the colonial period, from one of the finest private collections of retablos in the world (click here for an exhibition checklist). The Janis and Dennis Lyon collection encompasses the breadth and depth of the retablo tradition. This exhibition provides the first opportunity for the Lyon collection of retablos to be available for public viewing.

This exhibition is groundbreaking in its approach. Previously unconsidered questions and the biographies of various santeros are explored, as well as the relationships among artists, workshops, and patrons. The research by Charles Carrillo, Ph.D., and Father Thomas Steele, S. J., is the basis of this effort. Carrillo is an accomplished anthropologist who is well respected in his field and has been widely published over the past 20 years. He is also a leading contemporary santero. Father Steele is a highly regarded author and social historian who studies Hispanic life in early New Mexico. Together, their research sheds new light on the social history and artistic significance of colonial retablos, examining not only the physical and aesthetic nature of the decorative panels, but also the ways these objects were used in churches and as private devotional objects.

History of Retablos
A form of devotional painting on wooden panels, retablos developed in the remote location of northern New Mexico in the eighteenth century, establishing a folk art tradition still practiced today. Introduced by the Spanish as a means of converting the Indian population to Catholicism, these paintings became popular throughout the Southwest. In and around the industrialized Mexico City, retablos were most frequently painted on tin by artists with academic artistic training. In remote, northern New Mexico, however, the self-taught artists used materials largely derived from nature, mixing their own pigments to decorate the roughly-cut wooden panels with images of Christian saints and holy figures. Although the images recall folk art traditions, a strict code of symbols and attributes provided by the Catholic Church was followed when depicting saints, making them easily recognizable to the largely illiterate populace. Retablos range in size from impressive panels that stand three-feet tall to small works just a few inches high. The panels were venerated in churches and homes and were sometimes carried by travelers in leather pouches.

The opening of the Santa Fe Trail in 1821 marked the beginning of the end of the New Mexican retablo tradition. Traders brought inexpensive framed prints of holy figures into the region, which eventually forced the santeros out of business.

The Making of Retablos
The santeros of New Mexico worked primarily with local natural supplies. Starting with a wooden panel (unlike their counterparts in Mexico, who painted on tin), usually ponderosa pine, artists applied a gesso made from baked gypsum and animal-hide glue or wheat-flour paste as a binding agent to hold the paint. Since few imported dyes were available, artists made the majority of their water-based pigments from local clays, minerals, carbon soot, plants, barks, roots, and flowers, which they then applied using homemade brushes. They used a piñon-sap varnish for waterproofing.

Burn marks are visible on several of the panels’ bases. Specialists and collectors long believed that such marks were caused by burning candles left too close to the wooden objects. Recent research, however, indicates that such markings were intentional. It is now believed that carbon removed from the burned areas was used for medicinal purposes (for example, to rub on an afflicted body part or stir into food or water) or possibly preventative purposes (to toss into the air or a stream against natural dangers, such as fire, severe wind,
or flood).

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  1. Michael Yonan said, on September 25, 2009 at 12:33 pm

    I saw this exhibition while traveling through Nebraska in August and it’s really wonderful!

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