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Mexican Shrines, Retablos and Altars:


In 16th century Europe, people expressed their religious devotions around saints and shrines containing holy relics called reliquaries. In the name of the King of Spain and the Church, Hernando Cortez and his Spanish troops arrived to conquer Mexico in 1521. Like the Spanish, the native people of Mexico worshipped images of their gods and goddesses. As more and more people of Mexico adopted the Christian Jesus, Mary and saints, there was a large demand for holy images. Some of the Mexican images of divine persons became associated with miraculous powers or strange and wonderful stories. They became images that people prayed to and believed would help them in times of need. The desire to be protected, to have fertile animals and crops, and to live in good health are things that everyone wishes for in life. So the gods and goddesses of one belief eventually overlapped others. Within thirty years of Cortez' arrival in Mexico, the Mexican people embraced Mary, the Madonna or Mother of Jesus and established four important shrines to her.

Two of these famous shrines in Mexico are actually cathedrals or churches dedicated to the Madonna. One, to Our Lady of Guadalupe, is located just outside Mexico City. The other, to the Madonna de Soledad, is located in Oaxaca, the capital city of the state of Oaxaca in south central Mexico.


Our Lady of Guadalupe with Juan Diego. From The Art of Private Devotion: Retablo Painting of Mexico,p.23 © InterCultura and Gloria Fraser Giffords


Our Lady of Guadalupe is the dark-skinned indigenous mother goddess and Virgin Mary. Also called "the Indian Madonna", for her dark skin, she is surrounded by rays of light and stands on a crescent moon. The Aztec mother earth goddess Tonantzin, and Toci, the "mother of gods" had their temples on Tepeyac Hill. The conquistadores destroyed their temples very soon after their arrival. (1) Around the time of the destruction of Toci and Tonantzin's temples, in December, 1531 Juan Diego, a young Indian converted to Catholicism, first experienced a miraculous vision. On his way to pray for his sick uncle, he reached the hill at Tepeyac where Toci and Tonantzin's temples once stood. A dark-skinned Madonna appeared and told him to build a temple on the spot. Juan Diego rushed to tell the Bishop of the vision, the Bishop said that nothing would happen without some proof of the Madonna's presence. On Dec. 12, Juan Diego returned to the hill and found red roses blooming in the rocky soil. The Virgin appeared and placed the roses inside his garment. When Juan Diego produced the roses before the Bishop, a colorful likeness of the Virgin was miraculously left on the shirt he had used to carry the roses. The temple was built on the hill where Toci's and Tonantzin's had once stood, and over the altar hangs the portrait of the Virgin. The Virgin of Guadalupe even wears the cape of Tonantzin- a dark blue cloak with golden stars. Today Guadalupe is believed to cure people of many problems.


Neon-lit shrines to Our Lady of Soledad (right) and Our Lady of Guadalupe (left) hang above the hustle and bustle of the busy old market place in Oaxaca. photos and © V.Z. Rivers


The shrine dedicated to the Virgin of Soledad was constructed in Oaxaca about twelve years after the shrine to Guadalupe. The statue of the Madonna miraculously appeared at the Church of Soledad (meaning solitude or loneliness) in a wooden crate carried by a mule. It was common for trade goods brought by the Spanish ships from Asia to arrive at the port in Acapulco. Goods brought from Spain arrived in Veracruz on the Atlantic side. Mule trains crossed Mexico carrying the goods from one port on the Pacific to the Atlantic port. On December 18, a mule driver discovered a mysterious animal in his group of pack animals. The box it carried was open and inside was a statue of a beautiful Virgin. The statue was carved with the words, Our Lady of Soledad.

Retablos and Ex-Votos:

Retablos are religious oil paintings on tin. Some, called santos,were paintings of saints. These were used on home altars for worship. Other kinds were purchased from artists and left at shrines or churches to express thanks. These are mostly called retablosby the people who made and used them. But sometimes they are called ex-votos,a Latin word meaning "from a vow". This word shows how these small paintings were left at shrines to express thanks for some divine favor. 1.

The main production areas were located in central Mexico. They were made mostly by people without formal art training, yet the paintings reflect strong, sincere religious feelings. They represent images of Jesus, Mary, saints of the Catholic church, and angels. Retabloswere placed on people's home altars. They were used for personal devotion. People directed their prayers to these images. Retabloswere a popular folk art of the 19th century, and reflect the values and customs of the society that produced them. The painters looked to religious art imported from Europe and painted inside churches to reproduce the specific clothing, symbols and other details associated with the various saints and Madonnas.

One of the most favored retabloimages of Christ is The Child of Atocha, who is still very popular today. The image originated in the city of Atocha, Spain. Many Christians were imprisoned when Spain was invaded by Muslims. Only children were allowed to visit the prisoners. One day a miracle occurred when a child came to the prison carrying a gourd of water, basket of food and a staff. He fed the prisoners and his basket and gourd were still full. Because of this story, the Child of Atocha protects people in prison, people in any kind of danger and travelers. He is usually shown with a basket and a staff.


Nino de Atocha. From The Art of Private Devotion: Retablo Painting of Mexico,p.20 © InterCultura and Gloria Fraser Giffords


Votive paintings (sometimes called retablos in central Mexico) are also painted on tin and tell stories. Some express thanks or tell about a miraculous recovery. Usually the story is written on the painting and includes the date of the event and the name of the person who commissioned the painting. Some depict accidents, or illnesses. Often a small picture of the saint or religious figure who saved the person is shown in the votive painting. These are ways people were able to share their stories and publicly give thanks. The paintings were hung inside churches or shrines.


Ex-Voto 1825. From Mexican Fork Retablos,p.150 photo by Jerry D. Ferrin and © Gloria Fraser Giffords


One retabloshows a kitchen on fire. The fire threatened to spread to other parts of the house, so the owners prayed that the house be spared from the flames. The house was saved, so in gratitude the painting was created. In another painting, a man attempted to ride a wild mule. The mule ran towards a cliff. The man prayed to be saved, and the mule stopped just short of sending them both into the gorge below.


Ex-Voto Mid-Nineteenth Century. From Mexican Fork Retablos,p.153 photo by Jerry D. Ferrin and © Gloria Fraser Giffords


After 1875, mass-produced color prints became more widely available. These religious images reduced the demand for the hand-painted retablos. By the end of the nineteenth century, painted retablos had mostly disappeared. But prints could not replace the personal stories represented in votive scenes. The painting of ex-votos was probably replaced by the use of milagros,the tiny metal charms that represent a healing or other benefit. Votive paintings depicted peoples' experiences, their faith and acts of gratitude. They are an important part of Mexico's history.

Altars for Day of the Dead:

Dias todos Muertos, Todos Santos or Dia de Muertos is The Day of the Dead. Among many Spanish-speaking people, October 31, November 1 and 2 are a time of an important festival. It is believed that during these days the spirits of the dead reunite with their living relatives. These are days of feasting and celebration. Every household prepares an ofrendaor altar with food and drink to refresh the deceased spirits. Yellow marigolds called cempasúchil, are flowers of the dead. It is believed that their smell attracts the spirits, as does the sweet smell of burning copal, a fossil resin used as incense. These altars can also contain sugar skulls, special breads, and things the deceased one enjoyed doing on earth, like playing cards or reading books.


Two views of a cemetary in Oaxaca, mexcio, where families gather to await visits by their loved ones on Day of the Dead. the graves are decorated with candles and offerings. photos and © V.Z. Rivers


The festivities begin with cleaning graves, then decorating them with candles and flowers. They may also include offerings found on the family altars. Many communities in Mexico maintain all-night candle-lit vigils. The dead take in the essence of the offerings; then the family members enjoy the foods and share them with friends.


Graves are decorated for day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico. One grave has a colored sand painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe and another contains favored foods, The black container burns copal, a sweet smelling resin to attract and please the deceased. photos and © V.Z. Rivers


Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, Days of the Dead were celebrated by the Aztec people of Mexico. The Aztecs believed that death was not the end of the life cycle, but the beginning of eternal living. (1) Hundreds of years later, Day of the Dead is still important. For interesting information on Day of the Dead, images of contemporary American artists' Day of the Dead altars, and great links, see www.altares.org.


This altar has a special loaf of bread. The bread has a painted angel's head inserted in it. photos and © V.Z. Rivers



In the markets, people can buy the painted angel heads to add to their Day of the Dead breads. photos and © V.Z. Rivers


For Further reading:
Dana Salvo,Home Altars of Mexico,University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1997.

End Notes
the Altars section
1. Elizabeth Carmichael and Chloë Sayer, The Skeleton at the Feast: the Day of the Dead in Mexico, British Museum Press and University of Texas Press, 1995.

End Notes:
the Retabloand Ex-votosection :
1. Jorge Durand and Douglas S. Massey, Miracles on the Border,The University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1995, p. 9.

Further Images and Information on retablos and votive paintings of Mexico came from:
Gloria Fraser Giffords, Mexican Folk Retablos,University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1992 edition.

Gloria Fraser Giffords and Yvonne Lange, The Art of Private Devotion: Retablo Painting of Mexico,InterCultura, Fort Worth and The Meadows Museum, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, 1991.