Past Treasure of the Month – April 2010
The Rosenberg Library Museum featured a charming 19th century retablo of St. Peter of Alcantara as the April Treasure of the Month. This month’s featured artifact originated in New Mexico and was donated in 1975 as part of the William and Viola Pabst Collection.
The retablo is a hybrid of indigenous artistry, centuries of Catholic iconography, and Spanish culture. Better known as “laminas” in Mexico, retablos are small oil paintings on tin, zinc, wood, or copper which were used in home altars to honor and worship the almost infinite number of Catholic saints. The literal translation for “retablo” is “behind the altar.” This genre of folk art, deeply rooted in Spanish history, represents the heart and soul of traditional religious beliefs in 17th, 18th, and 19th century Mexican culture. The oldest documented New Mexican retablos date to the 1780s.
Some retablos were painted by academically-trained artists, but the majority of these pieces weren’t. The themes are usually of Christ, the Virgin Mary, the Holy Family, male and female saints, or archangels and votive images. The numerous saints depicted in these artworks were thought to remedy a variety of problems that people faced on a daily basis. New Mexican retablos are distinctive in their bold use of simple lines and color.
The Spanish initially introduced the retablo art form as a means to convert Native Americans to Catholicism as the Church relied heavily upon the standard use of symbols and motifs to help identify and teach the stories of the saints. The process flourished in post conquest Mexico and then ultimately reached its pinnacle of popularity with the introduction of inexpensive mediums in the latter part of the 19th century. These oil paintings were found in markets or shops near pilgrimage sites and were sold to devout believers.
The featured icon on the library’s retablo is said to be that of St. Peter of Alcantara. St. Peter of Alcantara (1499 – 1562) was a contemporary of well-known 16th century Spanish saints. He served as confessor to St. Teresa of Avila, promoted Carmelite reform, and directed most of his energies toward church reform, a major issue of that time period. Peter was born into a noble family in Alcantara, Spain, and studied law at Salamanca University. At age sixteen he joined the so-called “Observant Franciscans” where his penitential side to food and clothing soon became evident. In 1554 he formed a new group of Franciscans, and these friars became known as Alcantarines. His patience was so great that a proverb arose: “To bear such an insult one must have the patience of Peter of Alcantara.” He was canonized in 1669.
The retablo tradition was threatened at the end of the 19th century when these delicate hand-painted works of art were replaced by the abundance and availability of larger lithographs. Nevertheless, the retablo has continued through modern painting methods in the forms of calendars, holy cards, posters, commissioned works, and religious trinkets throughout Mexico and the United States. Many of the historic retablos are now collected by individuals and museums for their significant spiritual and artistic qualities.