Art is not always a pursuit of the educated upper classes. Medieval, Renaissance, and baroque art fulfilled the spiritual needs of largely illiterate congregations, invoking the glorious history of the faith, with its magic, mystery, and martyrdoms, and focusing the compassion of the believer on those superhuman beings whose sufferings were plainly more atrocious and more excruciating than his own. The transplanted European-style painted altarpiece or retablo may have lost sophistication as recreated by amateur painters for village churches of the Southwest, but, apparently, without sacrificing authority or popularity. Pinturas de Fe: The Retablo Tradition in Mexico and New Mexico at Hearst Art Gallery, organized by Lane Coulter for the Museum of New Mexico, features nearly seventy of the small devotional paintings on wood, canvas, and copper or tin-plated iron (laminas) that depicted the Virgin, Holy Family, and saints for the two centuries until modern commercial printing's deluge supplanted them. Also featured are ex-voto images, paintings commissioned by votaries (vow-takers) to thank patron saints for their assistance with injuries, illnesses, and accidents, as well as home altars and contemporary retablos.
Here are: St. Roch, with the dog who fed him during a plague outbreak; the Sacred Child of Atocha, a Mexican village, the patron saint of those in peril, thanked for helping a daughter, stabbed, and a father (one Jose Contreras) fallen from a horse; St. Francis of Paola, patron saint of those at sea because he once used his mantle as a boat; St. Raymond Nonnatus, "not born" because his mother died during childbirth, who, later, with his lips pierced and padlocked by African captors, became patron saint of midwives, mothers in labor, and unborn children — and the foe of gossip; St. Isidore, granted angelic help with his plowing duties to allow him more time to pray; and St. Wilgefortis, whose desire to elude marriage and remain a holy virgin was rewarded with a disfiguring pre-Freudian beard (not pictured) — and the symbolic palm of martyrdom.
Whatever one may think of Spanish colonialism, the religious folk art that arose under its dominion and flourished for ten generations has today many devotees and collectors, as well as a new generation of Hispanic artists that proudly claim it as a heritage. Pinturas de Fe runs through April 6 at Hearst Art Gallery, St. Mary's College of California (1928 St. Mary's Rd., Moraga); a lecture on Marion imagery is scheduled, and a new book on retablos printed in Spanish and English editions is available. Gallery.stmarys-ca.edu or 925-631-4379.
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