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Exvotos: A Bond Between Two Worlds

by Liliana Ruiz Velasco Davalos

"The eighteenth of November, 1948, found me lost in Chicago. I called upon the Virgen of San Juan de los Lagos to show me the road I was looking for. I dedicate this retablo in thanks for her hearing my prayers. Matias Lara. San Luis Potosi."

This retablo has an image of the female saint "Sanjuanita" hovering in the upper left-hand corner and shows a city full of skyscrapers, automobiles and tunnels. Matias Lara kept her promise to dedicate a lamina to the Virgen as a public show of faith and thanks for the miracle of safely finding her way.
In the San Juan de los Lagos church, located in the Mexican state of Jalisco, one will be dazzled by the countless exvotos hanging as offerings of gratitude to the saints for favors received. Photographs, locks of hair and swatches of clothing, even wheelchairs and medicine bottles are among the gifts left. But, the most frequent offerings are pictorial, like that of Matias Lara. They are known as retablos or exvotos or laminas in this country, and are paintings on metal, usually zinc panels, which relate a story.

The origin of exvotos
Retablos appeared in the New World shortly after the arrival of the first Spanish galleons to this continent. These paintings on were dedicated to a particular and appropriate saint-- depending on the type of miracle being remembered. Among some of the best known saints (and busiest, it would appear!) were the Virgen de los Remedios, San Ignacio de Loyola, San Lázaro, San Pascual and San Juan Nepomuceno-- many early Mexican exvotos incorporated their images.
At the end of the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth, countless sanctuaries were created in the names of such saints as Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, Santa María de Guadalupe, Nuestra Señora de Ocotlán, Nuestra Señora de San Juan de los Lagos and many others. Rather than calling upon a saint who was associated with a specific type of miracle as post-conquest Catholics had, these became regional saints who were called upon by the people of a particular area.
During this time, and even into the nineteenth century, retablos were considered a manifestation of religious faith rather than works of art. It wasn't until the 1920s that exvotos began being looked at for their aesthetic value. Painters such as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Roberto Montenegro and Siqueiros not only started collecting these laminas, they also used the themes and styles as a base for many of their own works of art.
During the 1930s, Frida Kahlo purchased nearly all of the exvotos housed in the Nuestra Señora Del Rosario church located in Talpa, Mexico, which accounts for there being few examples in the building prior to 1940. Kahlo took the collection to Mexico City, where she placed them on permanent exhibit.
Her husband, Diego Rivera, was also an enthusiast for this style of popular art. "Retablos," he said, "are true, actual and unique pictorial expressions of Mexican villages. They should bring renewed interest not only for collectors, but for students of Mexican culture as well."

Exvotos examine two planes, the past and the present, at the same time. They illustrate the dangerous situation a person has experienced (past), a summary of the happening and promise to dedicate a retablo (present), and the saint's image hovering nearby. These aspects set them apart from other types of religious art.
There are also exvotos which do not illustrate danger, only the answer that a favor received. These almost always show a kneeling figure with a burning candle. The candle is often painted at the same height as the image of the saint.
In both types, the space between the divinity and the person evoke a verbalization of an act. The expression of suffering or a dangerous situation, along with the positions of the images-- kneeling or with hands raised-- and the symbol of the saint hovering in the nearby clouds, provoke the idea that the prayer was answered.
The decision on how to draw an exvoto depends on more than the personal tastes of the donor, costs are another factor. For example, a retablo which only illustrates a figure kneeling is much easier, and less expensive, to create. Retablos were often commissioned to be painted by "milagreros." The artist's personal ideas also influence the look of the finished exvoto. Many of the pieces painted by Hernenegildo Bustos, for example, depict action. The narrative legends which explain the event are almost always found on the lower part of the painting, and usually include the date, place and name of the donor. Rarely does one find a piece signed by the painter.
Besides the traditional oil paint on metal, other visuals arts are sometimes used when creating an exvoto. These can include anything from photographs and post cards to cartoons and printed advertisements. Retablos from the state of San Luis Potosi were often painted in black and white.
Exvotos represent a belief in a union between the natural and the supernatural, the divine and the mundane. They show the intervention of a holy spirit in the lives of average people. The very act of offering a tangible object to an aberration perhaps best illustrates the conviction of a bond between two worlds.