Joslyn Art Museum Presents an Exhibition of Devotional Images Called Retablos
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Joslyn Art Museum Presents an Exhibition of Devotional Images Called Retablos
José Rafael Aragón, La Huida al Egipto (The Flight into Egypt), natural pigments on wood panel, Janis and Dennis Lyon Collection.

OMAHA, NE.- A rich tradition of religious painting flourished in New Mexico during the Spanish colonial period prior to 1912. In the 18th and 19th centuries, self-taught painters in New Mexican villages established workshops to produce devotional images called retablos. These colorful narrative panels consisted of images of Christian saints painted on wood, earning for their creators the title of santeros — or saint makers. These small paintings were sold to devout believers who displayed them in home altars to honor their patron saints. Virtually hundreds of saints were represented, each invoked to remedy a different situation.

The exhibition A Century of Retablos: The Janis and Dennis Lyon Collection of New Mexican Santos, 1780–1880 at Joslyn Art Museum, July 5 through October 4, introduces retablos to museum audiences and teaches about the methods of creating these beautiful panel paintings.

A Century of Retablos is organized by Phoenix Art Museum. The exhibition and accompanying catalogue have been generously supported by the National Endowment for the Arts through its American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius program.

A Century of Retablos features 93 wooden panels, all created during the colonial period, from one of the finest private collections of retablos in the world. The Janis and Dennis Lyon collection encompasses the breadth and depth of the retablo tradition. This exhibition provides the first opportunity for the Lyon collection of retablos to be available for public viewing.

This exhibition is groundbreaking in its approach, recognized as such by the National Endowment for the Arts with a grant for support from their American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius program. Previously unconsidered questions and the biographies of various santeros are explored, as well as the relationships among artists, workshops, and patrons. The research by Charles Carrillo, Ph.D., and Father Thomas Steele, S. J., is the basis of this effort. Carrillo is an accomplished anthropologist who is well respected in his field and has been widely published over the past 20 years. He is also a leading contemporary santero. Father Steele is a highly regarded author and social historian who studies Hispanic life in early New Mexico. Together, their research sheds new light on the social history and artistic significance of colonial retablos, examining not only the physical and aesthetic nature of the decorative panels, but also the ways these objects were used in churches and as private devotional objects.

History of Retablos
A form of devotional painting on wooden panels, retablos developed in the remote location of northern New Mexico in the 18th century, establishing a folk art tradition still practiced today. Introduced by the Spanish as a means of converting the Indian population to Catholicism, these paintings became popular throughout the Southwest. In and around the industrialized Mexico City, retablos were most frequently painted on tin by artists with academic artistic training. In remote, northern New Mexico, however, the self-taught artists used materials largely derived from nature, mixing their own pigments to decorate the roughly-cut wooden panels with images of Christian saints and holy figures. Although the images recall folk art traditions, a strict code of symbols and attributes provided by the Catholic Church was followed when depicting saints, making them easily recognizable to the largely illiterate populace. Retablos range in size from impressive panels that stand three-feet tall to small works just a few inches high. The panels were venerated in churches and homes and were sometimes carried by travelers in leather pouches.

The opening of the Santa Fe Trail in 1821 marked the beginning of the end of the New Mexican retablo tradition. Traders brought inexpensive framed prints of holy figures into the region, which eventually forced the santeros out of business.

The Making of Retablos
The santeros of New Mexico worked primarily with local natural supplies. Starting with a wooden panel (unlike their counterparts in Mexico, who painted on tin), usually ponderosa pine, artists applied a gesso made from baked gypsum and animal-hide glue or wheat-flour paste as a binding agent to hold the paint. Since few imported dyes were available, artists made the majority of their water-based pigments from local clays, minerals, carbon soot, plants, barks, roots, and flowers, which they then applied using homemade brushes. They used a piñon-sap varnish for waterproofing.

Burn marks are visible on several of the panels’ bases. Specialists and collectors long believed that such marks were caused by burning candles left too close to the wooden objects. Recent research, however, indicates that such markings were intentional. It is now believed that carbon removed from the burned areas was used for medicinal purposes (for example, to rub on an afflicted body part or stir into food or water) or possibly preventative purposes (to toss into the air or a stream against natural dangers, such as fire, severe wind,
or flood).

The Santeros
A Century of Retablos explores the biographies of various santeros for the first time. The exhibition features a dozen artists, some known by name, others by their style or location of particular works. The santeros are:

• The Eighteenth–Century Novice (active c. 1780)
An emigrant from southern New Spain (modern-day Mexico), this artist was familiar with Spanish Baroque painting. He worked in oil paint, which was rare for a New Mexican santero.

• Pedro Antonio Fresquís (1749–after 1831)
He was likely the earliest santero born in New Mexico and is believed to have had apprentices or assistants who worked in a taller, or workshop.

• The Laguna Santero (active c. 1790–1815)
Unknown by name, this santero is identified from a large altar screen at the mission church at the Pueblo of Laguna. He is credited with making more large-scale Colonial art than any other santero. His workshop also produced devotional sculptures, called bultos.

• Molleno (active c. 1800–1830)
A follower or apprentice of the Laguna Santero, he also created several altar screens. The artist's name is not found in archival records and is possibly a nickname preserved in the collective memory of the residents of the Cañon Chimayó, north of Santa Fe.

• The A.J. Santero (active c. 1830–1850)
An anonymous educated santero identified by the initials "A. J." found in the corner of a single retablo. He was not prolific, and there are less than 50 retablos known by him.

• The Quill Pen Santero (active c. 1820–1850)
This santero drew fine facial features with a quill pen and was influenced by Molleno. His use of what appear to be Pueblo Indian designs has led some scholars to suggest that he was of American Indian heritage. His production was limited, and his retablos are among the rarest in New Mexico.

• José Aragón (born c. 1781/1789–d. post 1850)
A prolific artist who made hundreds of retablos and bultos, Aragón signed many of his works, unlike most santeros of his era. He was born in Santa Fe and was an older brother to fellow santero José Rafael Aragón.

• The Christmas Santero (c. 1830s or 1840s)
A short-lived subgroup of the Workshop of José Aragón, recognized by the predominant use of bright red and green paints.

• The Arroyo Hondo Painter (active 1820s–1840s)
Named after an altar screen from the Church of Nuestra Señora de Dolores de Arroyo Hondo, about 12 miles outside of Taos, this artist's work is closely related to that of José Aragón. He was earlier identified as the “Dot-Dash Painter” because of his use of decorative elements. There is an extensive body of work attributed to this painter, who also created bultos.

• José Rafael Aragón (born c. 1783/1796–d. 1862)
He was arguably the finest and most talented santero of his era. A highly prolific painter and sculptor, he created most of the altar screens for the communities along the High Road to Taos. Born and raised in Santa Fe, he belonged to a network of artisan families of carpenters and woodworkers. He resettled in Quemado in 1835.

• The Workshop (Taller) of José Rafael Aragón (c. 1830s–c.1870s)
José Rafael's son, Miguel, is believed to have followed in his father's footsteps and worked at his father's workshop. Studies suggest that followers continued to paint in the style of José Rafael after his death.

• José Manuel Benavides (c. 1798–post 1852)
Previously identified as the anonymous Santo Niño Santero, Benavides was a sculptor and painter who likely shared a workshop with José Rafael Aragón.

The Collectors
Janis and Dennis Lyon have been serious connoisseurs and collectors of New Mexican retablos for more than 30 years and have created one of the world's finest private collections. Interested in coming as close to the hands of these early painters as possible, they diligently choose only those works with little or no restoration.

Joslyn Art Museum | Janis and Dennis Lyon | Charles Carrillo | Ph.D. | Father Thomas Steele | S. J. | Catholicism |

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