Kalarte Gallery: Latin America

Ex-Voto Retablos

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The tradition of offering a votive object to a god or a holy personage in thanks or petition dates back, in Europe, at least to the ancient Greeks. Such practices have been common in other parts of the world, such as pre-Columbian America and India, as well. In the west, these votive objects are called ex-votos, from the Latin for "from (or out of) a vow," indicating that these offerings are often made as part of a promise to a deity for, or in anticipation of, a prayer answered.

Votive objects were left at churches and shrines throughout the Christian era. The votive painting, however, according to some art historians, had its origin in Italy in the 15th century. Wealthy patrons would commission a religious picture in which they themselves would be depicted in the scene. This new votive tradition quickly spread throughout the Mediterranean and then Europe in general. A painting done by Titian in 1570 shows an altar to which votive paintings have been attached. The practice of commissioning votive pictures also spread to the less wealthy classes in society, who, however, would hire painters of lesser rank to paint votive pictures. These would, of course, be of lesser quality.

The tradition of votive painting was slowly transported to the New World with the Spanish settlers. When the criollo (i.e., a person born to Spanish parents in the New World) society became established in Mexico, the votive painting tradition became established along with it. In the 18th century, both criollo culture and the votive painting tradition spread from the valley of Mexico northwest into the states of west central Mexico that were being settled at that time.

The 19th century witnessed a dramatic change in the ex-voto painting tradition. At the end of the 18th century, a technique to bond tin to iron sheets was developed in Britain. When these tin sheets were imported to Mexico in the early 19th century, Mexican folk painters discovered a new surface medium for their painting. Because tinplate was so cheap, the practice of offering votive paintings to Jesus, Mary, or one's favorite saint became very common among the masses in the west central states of Mexico, and the custom was abandoned by the upper classes.

Ex-Votos and Retablos

The practice of painting on tin in 19th century Mexico involved not only votive paintings but also paintings of saints. Today, at least among authors writing in English, the term "ex-voto" is often used to mean a votive painting and "retablo," a painting of a saint. Among the common people in west central Mexico, however, the terms retablo and ex-voto are used interchangeably to refer to the painted votive pictures while the paintings on tin of saints are typically called láminas. Some art historians distinguish between "ex-voto retablos" and "retablos santos."

These two art forms were similar and co-existing, and some folk artists painted both saints and votive pictures. However, the two forms developed from different sources and were quite different in the creativity of their compositions. The retablos santos served the clergy's need to disseminate Christianity. Both pictures and sculptures of saints were placed in architectural settings within churches. Wealthy pious families also commissioned their own pictures of saints, and, as we have seen, the practice spread to poorer families with the advent of tinplate. Ex-voto paintings, on the other hand, developed out of the problems and concerns of the common people and evidenced their desire for a relationship with the divine outside the normal churchly context.

Votive practices in Mexico were also influenced by a strong pre-Columbian votive tradition. This fact led the church to be less than fully supportive of the tradition of offering votive paintings. The relation of the Virgin of Guadalupe to the Aztec mother goddess is well documented. In some of the shrines in west central Mexico—such as those to la Virgen de Zapopan and la Virgen de Talpa,—to which votive offerings have traditionally been made, the images were built in the 16th century by Indian artisans using a mixture of corn pith and orchid juice, according to traditional native techniques of image-making.

Another difference between the two forms is that paintings of saints were generally copies of other works, whether prints, paintings, or statues. The iconography was standardized and there was little room for deviation from the pattern. With the ex-voto retablo, however, artists had much more freedom in designing the composition of their pictures, interpreting their clients' experiences in creative and interesting ways.

The Paintings

Votive paintings were typically commissioned as the result of an answered prayer. For example, a mother might pray to the Virgin for the recovery of her child from an illness, or a man might pray to Jesus that his son would successfully find a job in the United States. If the prayer was answered, the petitioner would commission a local folk painter to paint a votive picture, which would then be given to the local church where the particular statue of the Virgin or Jesus resided. Occasionally, an ex-voto retablo would be offered in expectation of a desired result, and occasionally a petitioner would paint his or her own ex-voto.

Typically, a person whose prayer was answered would describe the problematical incident (the illness, injury, etc.) to the artist who would then use his imagination to depict the scene described. How many details would be included in the picture was partly dependent on the client's ability to pay; the more details, the higher the cost.

When the painting was completed, the petitioner would then present the picture at the shrine of the local church, perhaps attaching it to the wall or giving it to the priest. There are many such shrines were offerings have been made, and continue to be made. Examples of these shrines are those of el Señor de Villaseca, or the black Christ, on the outskirts of Guadalajara; el Señor de la Conquista (Lord of the Conquest), also known as el Señor de los Milagros (Our Lord of Miracles) in San Felipe, Guanajuato; and La Virgen de San Juan de los Lagos (the Virgin of Saint John of the Lakes) in San Juan de los Lagos, Jalisco.

The composition of an ex-voto retablo usually involves two horizontal bands. In the band at the bottom is a written text that describes the incident or prayer. Of benefit to historians is the fact that this text usually includes the date of the incident depicted or of the painting of the picture. Above this bottom band is the picture, which usually contains two sections. At the top, or sometimes to one side, is the image of Jesus, the Virgin, or the saint to whom the petitioner made a prayer. The other section of the painting shows the incident (child's illness, etc.) that motivated the prayer.

There are several noteworthy characteristics to Mexican votive paintings on tin. First, hierarchical scaling is often used whereby more important figures (such as Jesus, the Virgin, or a saint) are painted larger than other figures. Contrary to the more subdued hues of the retablo paintings of saints, ex-voto retablos use bold, bright colors. Attention is given to costumes and to interior spaces. Furthermore, ex-voto artists often include theater props (such as drapery) and stage sets in their designs in order to enhance the drama of the event.

The artists also manipulate space and time in their pictures. Thus, different scenes and times occupy the same painting. For example, a scene of an injury on a highway and a scene of a petitioner praying before the Virgin in a church in the following year (that is, after the injury occurred) will be painted together. Another characteristic of ex-voto retablos is the artists' use of other materials in the painting. In these "mixed media" ex-votos, the artists might incorporate photographs or plaster images in their works. Contrary to the retablo santo, which was destroyed by the development of cheap new media, the ex-voto has incorporated such new media into its tradition.

Ex-Votos in the Twentieth Century

The votive painting on tin did not experience the same fate as the retablo santo, the painting on tin of a saint, which was replaced by cheaper lithograph prints and mass-produced religious objects in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Because each ex-voto depicted a unique event and because the scenes depicted were not required to follow a standard, predetermined iconographic scheme, the ex-voto tradition survived the mass influx of cheap prints and other items and continued throughout the twentieth century. In fact, as mentioned above, retablo artists even incorporated some of these cheap objects, including photographs and plaster statues, in their ex-votos, somewhat expanding the form.

An appreciation for ex-voto paintings as an art form was fostered in the 20th century due, in large part, to the efforts to some of the great Mexican artists of the century who collected ex-votos. Diego Rivera praised ex-voto retablos as a true and unique expression of Mexican culture. Frida Kahlo, more than any other artist, used the form of the ex-voto retablo as a compositional device in her own works. Thus, the tradition of ex-voto retablo painting continues today, both as an expression of devotion and as an artistic and cultural phenomenon.


Dones y promesas: 500 años de arte ofrenda (Exvotos mexicanos). (1996). Mexico City: Centro Cultural/Arte Contemporáneo, and Fundación Cultural Televisa. [Spanish]
(An excellent text that accompanied an exhibition of ex-votos; provides several essays on aspects of ex-voto paintings; lavishly illustrated.)

Durand, Jorge, and Douglas S. Massey. (1995). Miracles on the Border: Retablos of Mexican Migrants to the United States. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. [English]
(An excellent study that discusses ex-votos offered by, or on behalf of, Mexican immigrants to the United States.)

Giffords, Gloria Fraser. (1992). Mexican Folk Retablos. Revised Edition. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. [original edition published in 1974 by University of Arizona Press]. [English]
(Classic text on retablos and ex-votos.)

Retablos y exvotos. Collección Uso y Estilo. (2000). Mexico City: Museo Franz Mayer. [bilingual Spanish and English]
(Three essays on retablos and popular religion, the power of images, and religious orders.)

Sánchez Lara, Rosa María. (1990). Los retablos populares: Exvotos pintados. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. [Spanish]
(Discusses the history, social and cultural milieu, and aesthetics of ex-voto paintings.)


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