Artist: Concepción Avila, attr.
Commentary by Douglas J. Weatherford
Associate Professor of Spanish
Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe, c. 1885, attributed to Concepción Ávila) is a fitting example of Mexican religious iconography. It belongs to the Mexican retablo genre and points to the very personal nature of religious devotion in that country throughout the centuries. The word retablo can refer to large and elaborate structures (often wooden triptychs) that combine multiple individual paintings and sculptures in a creative architectural design that are assembled behind the altars in Catholic churches. This visual representation of a congregation’s collective faith is echoed in the more intimate form of the retablo to which a design like Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe belongs. Indeed, the word retablo (often referred to as lámina in Mexico) was eventually used to describe small religious paintings that might be displayed in a home altar or presented as an ex-voto.
The Virgin of Guadalupe as a religious and national icon
Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe is a typical representation of the Virgin that Mexico has adopted as its patron saint (although she is also revered throughout the Americas). According to legend, in 1531 the Holy Mother appeared on a hill on the outskirts of Mexico City to the Indian Juan Diego asking that a shrine to her be built on that spot. When ecclesiastical officials failed to believe the witness, the Virgin returned and left her impression on the man’s cloak. The design painted by Concepción Ávila in this retablo is not unique to this artist. Rather it is a reproduction of the image left on Juan Diego’s garment that now hangs, according to believers, above the main altar of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe erected on the very site she visited nearly five centuries ago.
The Virgin directs her gaze downward toward her devotees, reverently joins her hands, and is covered from head to toe by a gold-trimmed shawl. Standing on a crescent moon, she is surrounded by the sun’s rays and is lifted up by an angelic being. Culturally, the Virgin’s most distinctive feature is her dark skin, which followers accept as a manifestation of the Holy Mother’s love for the Indigenous and mestizo (mixed European and Indigenous) masses that needed special guidance and protection after the Conquest.
The Virgin of Guadalupe has been accepted over the years as an icon of Mexican national identity. She appeared on the banners of Father Miguel Hidalgo who declared the nation’s independence from Spain in 1810 and on those of the peasant soldiers who fought in the 1910 Revolution alongside Emiliano Zapata. Her presence in the American Southwest is longstanding, having arrived with early Hispanic colonizers even before the appearance of the first Anglo-American settlers. With increased Hispanic immigration, the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe is seen more frequently throughout the United States and is steadily becoming an important part of our own national iconography. That is true as well in Utah, a state that boasts a private school in Draper (Juan Diego Catholic High School) named in honor of the indigenous disciple who first saw Our Lady of Guadalupe on a hill outside Mexico City in 1531.
Retablos as ex-votos and in-home altars
Unlike Islam, which shuns the physical representation of sacred beings, Catholicism encourages the creation and display of religious icons including the portrayal of exemplary devotees. A retablo might depict Christ, the Virgin Mother, or one of the hundreds of saints that belong to the Catholic tradition. Additionally, the term retablo is often used to describe small paintings that are offered by the faithful to a cherished Saint or Virgin in fulfillment of a religious vow or as a token of appreciation for a blessing received. In this sense a retablo can serve as an ex-voto (Latin, “from the vow”) that narrates a miraculous event (the recovery of a sick child, for example) and is left at a religious shrine as a tangible witness to the donor’s devotion and gratitude.
Retablos can also be found throughout Mexico in small home altars that are maintained by individual families. The retablo tradition is indicative of a desire to create a personal or familial sacred space that might include candles, a crucifix, images of the Virgin Mother and favored saints (often in the form of retablos), along with family portraits and other personal objects of special importance. These home altars date to the period of the Conquest and are syncretic in nature, combining aspects of the earnest devotion not only of the conquering Spanish but also of the native peoples that they defeated. The importance of home altars in Mexico gained an unintended boost in the middle of the nineteenth century and again in the first half of the twentieth century when clashes between the government and the Catholic Church resulted, in some instances, in the prohibition of public worship and the forced closure of religious buildings. During these times of conflict between church and state, home altars were a source of inspiration and refuge for the faithful.
Appreciation for the retablo as a unique art form increased in the decades following the Mexican Revolution (1910-17) when many artists, writers, filmmakers, and intellectuals rejected earlier preferences for European models and began a search for a uniquely Mexican identity. The role of the retablo in that quest for a national art form can be seen in the Casa Azul in Coyoacán, near Mexico City. This home-turned-museum belonged to the famous Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and was shared for many years by her muralist husband Diego Rivera. Displayed on the walls of a large stairway of that residence are the many retablos (especially ex-votos) that Frida and Diego gathered over a lifetime and added to their expansive collection of native Mexican art. Indeed, enthusiasts of Frida’s artistic canon will recall a number of her works that are painted in the ex-voto style.