Retablos (exvotos) are oil paintings, usually on tin, of a Christian saint or saints. They were painted by untrained artists from the provinces of Mexico. Although retablos are captivating and colorful, they were used less for adornment than for protection for the home and its inhabitants against the maladies of life. The second type of religious folk painting, the exvoto, serves as a visual testimony of a miracle that has occurred or as a commemoration of a blessing received. "Exvoto" is a Spanish word meaning "votive offering." The term comes from a Latin word which literally means "dedicated gifts" or "out of a promise or vow." These votive offerings are given or dedicated in fulfillment of a vow or pledge, or expressing a wish, desire, or vow. In Mexico, an exvoto is most commonly a personal thank you note to God, often taking the form of folk art. In most cases, the exvoto is signed and dated, and explains why the giver is giving thanks did for him or her. In many cases, they tell a very touching personal story. The personal story is what makes them so fascinating. The exvoto is most often left at a church altar. They are very public, yet very personal, professions of faith in God and thanks for favors received.
The most common reason for thanks is health, with many exvotos dedicated after operations. Survival of accidents is a close second. But almost any subject is sufficient to justify creating one, from finding a missing child or mule to fixing a leak in a stock pond.
The concept of a votive offering has been around for thousands of years dating back to the 5th century BC, with an offering to Apollo at Delphi. Hernan Cortez, the conquistador of Mexico, had an elaborate exvoto created to give thanks for his survival from the bite of a scorpion. This exvoto was made of gold and emeralds.
The form that we see today began in Italy in the 15th century, when artists were commissioned to produce painted exvotos. This concept spread rapidly through Europe and the Americas, and was not limited to the upper classes. The first painted exvoto in Mexico dates from 1592. Exvotos from this period generally include a picture of the saint, a picture of the donor, and the name of the donor, but little detailed textual information.
In Mexico, the painted exvoto may sometimes be called a retablo, although the word retablo is probably best reserved for the sacred images painted on wooden panels behind altars.
When many people think of exvotos in Mexico, they think of those painted on tin or sheet metal. This use of tin started in the 19th century. These exvotos are generally around a foot in length, and were often painted by a local artist or artisan for the giver, who may not have been able to read and write. In contrast, most Mexican exvotos have a detailed explanation of why the donor is giving thanks. Modern exvotos are frequently made on paper, and often have the look of children's art, most likely designed and created by the giver. They may include photographs or even photocopies. It is not at all unusual to see one that is simply a photocopy of a graduation certificate from secondary school or even medical school.
Today, exvotos are not as common around the world as they were hundreds of years ago. But they are still found in Spain and other countries. For example, a web search revealed that in Galicia, Spain, one of the local forms of handicrafts is an exvoto cast from wax, often of a body part. In Santo Domingo, the metal exvoto is the most common.
Exvotos are found in nearly all Mexican churches: Cata, Guanajuato, the city of Guanajuato, and Real de Catorce, San Luis Potosi. The church in San Juan de Los Lagos, Jalisco, is reported to contain many exvotos. Look around the next time you are in a church in Mexico, you may find some exvotos on a side altar. In some churches, you may find only a few, while other churches have hundreds. In Cata, the walls of the church were covered to a height of 20 feet with exvotos.
In a secular society, people do not generally think of God in terms of having much direct impact on their lives. For the Mexicans who create and post exvotos, God is very much alive, helping them in their times of crisis. The exvoto is an expression of faith, a public thank you note to God, a reflection of popular culture, and a form of folk art.
The exvoto is a fascinating reflection of the unique culture of Mexico.
For over twenty years, Anton Haardt has made her summer residence in Mexico in a pristine fishing village overlooking the sparkling Pacific. Her travels through Mexico have afforded her the opportunity to amass a singular collection of Mexican folk art. The vibrant and colorful art she has brought back is matched by its equally colorful histories in small villages where faith and devotion are an everyday part of life. This collection of Ex- votos or Retablos, illustrated offerings to saints are usually painted on metal. Their bright, detailed pictures celebrate miraculous events in the lives of those who commissioned their painting. Traveling through ageless towns like San Miguel and Guanajuato, one can still see Ex Votos and Retablos decorating the walls of some of the oldest churches in the Americas. Retablos were made originally to hang in the church to give thanks to a particular saint as a sort of appreciation convinced that the saint was the reason of their salvation.