Latino Studies Retablos
Doug Massey, Jorge Durand
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 March 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0093


The word retablo comes from the Latin retro-tabula, literally meaning “behind the altar,” and originally it referred to paintings placed behind the altar of churches in the early Middle Ages. During the 12th and 13th centuries, however, the term was generalized to refer to any painted work associated with an altar or a sacred image. Retablos come in two forms: santos and ex-votos (Sp. ex-votos). Santos are representations of holy figures, such as Christ, the Virgin, the Holy Family, or any one of a multitude of saints. Originally they were placed around the altar as objects of veneration, but over time they moved outside the church as wealthy parishioners commissioned paintings for veneration at home. In modern times, as cheaper means of production became available, santos increasingly made their way into the homes of common folk. Ex-votos, in contrast, remained confined to churches and religious shrines and served the dual purpose of making public the miraculous powers of a religious icon and thanking that icon for a favor received. After surviving some threat to their well-being, votaries would prepare or commission a painting recounting the event and place it before the holy image as an act of thanksgiving. The classic votive retablo consists of a depiction of the miraculous event and the holy image, along with a text describing what happened. As with santos, the practice of using ex-votos to testify and give thanks began in the upper classes and spread to the masses over time. Both traditions began in Europe and were brought to the Americas during Spanish colonization, where they blended with indigenous beliefs and practices. Although santos continue to be displayed in churches and homes throughout Latin America, ex-votos died out in most places during the 19th century, with the notable exception of Mexico, where votive paintings and practices continue to thrive. In Mexico today, the words retablo and ex-voto have become almost synonymous. Although retablos began as paintings on canvas, their popularization shifted the medium to tin, which remains the classic expression for ex-votos, though in practice almost any surface may be used to prepare an offering, including wood, Masonite, cardboard, paper, and even plastic. One final votive tradition common throughout Latin America involves the presentation of milagros to a holy image as an act of supplication or thanksgiving. These are small charms or talismans made of cast metal in the shape of some object or thing of consternation to the votary. Although Peru also has its own retablo tradition centered in the city of Ayacucho, the retablos produced there are not votive paintings but carved and painted representations of religious scenes and popular settings that are glued into a box for display on a table or shelf. Although they are collected by folk art aficionados, they have never had a popular following in the borderlands or elsewhere in the United States, and thus will not be covered here.

General Overviews

The use of santos for private veneration in the home and ex-votos for acts of thanksgiving in public were well established as elite traditions in Mexico by the 18th century, and they spread to the masses with the advent of industrial methods of reproduction in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was not until the 1920s, however, that they came to be appreciated as works of art by collectors and artists who, in the wake of the Mexican Revolution, were searching for authentic representations of mestizaje—the mixture of indigenous and Spanish traditions to create a new, distinctly Mexican sensibility. Over the years, a growing number of books have assembled color reproductions of both santos and ex-votos to provide an overview of their evolution and differentiation across time and space. Giffords 1974, Giffords 1992 (in English), and Romandía de Cantú 1978 (in Spanish) are early overviews, and for many years these were the go-to references on the subject. Interest in retablos accelerated during the 1990s, with the publication of the surveys Sánchez Lara 1990 and Belard and Verrier 1996. Interest continued to swell in the 2000s, led off by de Orellana 2000, a volume published by Mexico’s leading artistic journal, Artes de México; Luque Agraz and Beltrán 2003, a survey of retablos dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe, perhaps the most sacred image in the Americas; and Caswell and Ramos 2006, a remarkably comprehensive survey of votive works compiled from throughout Mexico.

  • Belard, Marianne, and Philippe Verrier. Los exvotos del occidente de Mexico. Zamora, Mexico: El Colegio de Michoacán, 1996.

    A survey of votive paintings assembled from churches and shrines throughout the states of western Mexico, such as Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato, and Zacatecas.

  • Caswell, James, and Jenise A. Ramos. Saints and Sinners: Mexican Devotional Art. Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 2006.

    A presentation of devotional art containing some 350 color reproductions of santos, milagros, retablos, and ex-votos from the 18th to the mid-20th century, with accompanying essays by Gloria Fraser Giffords, Philip Wrench, Roberto G. Cruz Floriano, Janet Brady Esser, Martha J. Egan, and Joanna Stuhr.

  • de Orellana, Margarita, ed. Retablos y exvotos. Mexico City: Artes de México, 2000.

    Published by the celebrated journal of Mexican art Artes de México, this volume is dedicated to retablos and ex-votos, with numerous color reproductions and articles by Gloria Giffords, Martha Egan, Marion Oettinger, Jorge Durand, Patricia Arias, and Douglas Massey.

  • Giffords, Gloria F. Mexican Folk Retablos: Masterpieces on Tin. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1974.

    For many years the leading reference on retablos in English, bridging the gap between the artists and collectors of Mexico’s post-revolutionary period and the surge of interest in retablos during the 1990s and 2000s.

  • Giffords, Gloria F. Mexican Folk Retablos: Masterpieces on Tin. Rev. ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992.

    An updated edition of the 1974 classic work with a new preface.

  • Luque Agraz, Elin, and Mary Michele Beltrán. El arte de dar gracias: Selección de exvotos pictóricos del Museo de la Basilica de Guadalupe/The Art of Giving Thanks: A Selection of Pictorial Exvotos in the Collection of the Museum of the Basilica of Guadalupe. Mexico City: Universidad Iberoamericana, 2003.

    A bilingual catalogue of selected ex-votos from the Museum of the Basillica of Guadalupe in Tepeyac outside Mexico City, the home of Mexico’s most famous representation of the Virgin, with a preface by Elisa Vargaslugo.

  • Romandía de Cantú, Graciela. Exvotos y milagros mexicanos. Mexico City: Companía Cerillera la Central, 1978.

    An early survey of Mexican votive paintings and milagros that was for many years the leading reference on retablos in Spanish.

  • Sánchez Lara, Rosa María. Los retablos populares: Exvotos pintados. Mexico City: UNAM Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, 1990.

    An early analysis of ex-votos, including their history, their influence on the Mexican fine arts, their social and cultural meaning, their aesthetic vision, and a description of three important votive sites: El Santuario de Cata in Guanajuato, El Santuaro de Plateros in Zacatecas, and El Templo del Señor de Ojo Zarco in Guanajuato.

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