Spanish for "altar piece", retablos are a tradition in folk art where religious scenes or images are painted on inexpensive material (for example, wood, or thin tin and iron sheets), or crafted into small ornamental wooden boxes placed about the home or church. The practice is of European origin, and was transplanted to the western hemisphere by the Spanish conquistadores. These icons are meant as a form of religious devotion, or, as a remnant of pre-conquest traditions, as good luck symbols.

Several themes are common in retablo art, with the crucifixion of Christ, The Virgin Mary and Child, and Virgin of Guadalupe being particularly common, along with a host of saints and apparitions. They may also express gratitude for being cured of illness or worry by religious devotion.

Retablo boxes are found throughout Central and South America and are often very finely crafted, with doors opening onto a richly detailed scene. The paintings on tin are indigenous to Mexico, where the raw tin sheets were common and inexpensive. The practice of hand-crafting retablo paintings faded at the end of the nineteenth century when the inexpensive mass production of pictures and engravings became possible.

A collection of Mexican retablo paintings can be found at, from which some information for this writeup was taken. The New Mexico State University art museum has an extensive collection of them as well if you happen to be in the Las Cruces area.

While I can't verify which version is more accurate, I learned a slightly different version of retablo at art class at school (yick).

Supposedly, retablo also refers to a fairly common type of art (at least at the time of Frida Kahlo, who was known for collecting and painting retablos in addition to her other work). It is a depiction of a crisis in someone's (usually the artist's) life. The drawing is generally fairly simple, often of a realistic or somewhat cubist style, telling the story of the moment of the crisis.

The piece is often fairly small, and as Grzcyrgba said, painted on wood or tin, whatever happens to be available and preferable to the artist. Beneath the painting itself is a passge, generally handwritten by the author in his or her native language, describing the accident and giving thanks to their deity of choice (also as Grzcyrgba said, there is usually a religious overtone to a retablo and thus thanks is generally given to God) that this specific indicdent was not as bad as it could have been, and that they survived the ordeal and lived to tell about it.

Frida Kahlo was injured in a public transit accident when she was a teenager. She painted several retablos referring to this incident, and she also enjoyed collecting the retablos that others had made.

This traditional form of South American art started in churches, where multi-paneled stacks of ornately decorated and painted figures depicted scenes from the Bible and religious ceremonies. Today, contemporary retablos are sold in markets and more recently online. The originals included precious stones and metals, but modern contemporary versions use available materials like clay, cardboard boxes and paper pulp mixed with glue. They retain a spiritual motif, and often depict rumored local miracles. Many give thanks to saints for healing mundane sicknesses or injuries. One thanks a patron saint for sparing a clumsy adult relative from severe injuries after toppling down basement stairs. Another thanks their saint for healing injuries quickly after a coca-cola truck collides with them one morning.

Some retablos depict desperation and struggle, contrasting experiences between groups of people. A two-paneled folding retablo compares immigration experiences between rich, middle and lower class Mexicans as they cross the border. On the left, clay figures depict citizens passing through immigration and customs peacefully while officials verify documents. They place luggage into security scanners, and wait in line for security guards to pass them through metal detectors. On the right, a group of illegal immigrants burrow under a barbed-wire fence and run onwards to a darkened desert. Each of them carries a backpack or blanket holding supplies for their treacherous journey.

Others indulge in the fantastic, ridiculous and paranormal. One depicts a mother thanking her patron saint for her brave son attacking a hidden spider with insecticide. Another asks for guidance when a mother hears stories of a teacher sleeping during class instead of instructing students. One retablo depicts an alien abduction of a farmer's cow, and simultaneously thanks them for sparing their life but begs them to have the hefted heiffer returned safely.

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