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Good morning/afternoon. Today I will be presenting to you a few of the difficulties which can occur while identifying retablo subjects, as well as some of the anomalies, which I have found during my research efforts into their background.
As we know, there are many tools and choices available to help us in the process of trying to identify a particular subject matter. First off, would be the attributes that one would expect to find and which hopefully are present on any given retablo. By this, we mean, the objects that we recognize as being appropriate to and symbolic of that particular saint. It may take the form of an instrument of his martyrdom - knife, rope, cross, stone - a religious object related to his dedication or fervor - a Eucharist, crucifix the model of a church in hand - as a founder of an order, a Doctor of the church, or perhaps builder of many churches, etc. Secondly, the iconography of the saint or very simply, the description of the work of art, according to how the image is represented. The manner of dress, physical attributes, any action that is implied - such as stoning, drowning - other figures that may be present, surroundings, etc. By correctly analyzing our observations we can, with luck, correctly identify a particular subject matter. A most important factor in facilitating investigation and research, are the many wonderful libraries and museums throughout this nation.
Let's start off with Saint Lawrence. (Slide left). His usual attributes, which we can see in this retablo, are the palm of a martyr in one hand and a grill which he holds by the handle. Iconographically, he is young looking, beardless, tonsured, dressed in a deacon's dalmatic - which is very distinctive - and a maniple over his left arm. After Pope Sixtus II was assassinated, Lawrence, as the deacon in charge of the treasury, was requested to relinquish all the riches of the Church, by the Prefect of Rome. He sold off everything of value and gave it to the poor and needy.' This large indigent group gathered in front of the Prefect of Rome, and when asked where all the treasure was, Lawrence answered, "these people are the greatest treasures of the Church". He was promised a horrible death, which was to be roasted alive. It is said that he told his executioners, "I am ready on this side. Turn me over". Then, when he felt that he was done, he said "The meat is ready - you can eat". (Slide right). Here we see an Italian print, with most of the above attributes and iconographical style, and even the words - Versa et Manduca - Turn and eat. Another Saint Lawrence, right? No! This is Saint Vincent of Zaragoza, of Spain and not Italy, who was also martyred. He was also a deacon, young, etc. and supposedly cousin of St. Lawrence. It is believed that the artists have depicted him with the gridiron by mistake. (Slide right). Grilling seemed to have been a popular method of torture, as we can see from this slide showing Saint Eleutherius being roasted. What I learned here, is that sometimes what you see is really not what you might think it is. Be careful of jumping to conclusions.
(Slide left). Saint Bartholomew, one of the 12 Apostles, evangelized far and wide and finally put to death in Armenia by the king for all the conversions he was making. In this retablo, he is shown holding his usual attribute, the knife, the symbol of his martyrdom for having been flayed alive. He is standing upright, dressed with the usual apostle's garb, and white beard. Another representation, (Slide left), he is shown tied to a tree and his left arm is half skinned. He is kneeling and is naked but for a white loin cloth. (Slide right). This etching of The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, was made in 1624 by Jose Ribera, a Spanish painter and engraver, as a copy of his own painting. It would appear that this print might be the source for the retablo representation. Notice all the points of similarity, such as the angle and shape of the tree even though the torturers are missing from the retablo. The next two slides of prints, (Slide right), I have reversed one on purpose, as can be seen from the title being spelled backwards. (Slide right). These two prints seem to be copies of the Ribera original, with the exception being that they are reversed. These engravers forgot to reverse their copies when they were preparing their plates or boards, and hence their prints came out reversed. I have been told that this kind of reversal was not altogether uncommon and not of that great an importance, in those days. The lesson here is that prints, Holy cards, and even more formal religious art paintings, are generally a good source for information.
(Slide left). Nuestra Senora de la Cueva Santa or Our Lady of the Holy Cave, is one of many Virgins of the Cave, that exist in Spain. (Slide right). This slide is titled The Original Image of Our Lady of the Holy Cave that is venerated in Segorbe, Spain. The original was destroyed during the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and in 1954 she was replaces with a copy. The devotion was -brought to Mexico -in the 18th century, as apparently in 1741 there were novenas already printed to her in Mexico City. Other than the obvious visual differences, it is similar to the retablo as far as the image itself is concerned. Her two main places of veneration are in Queretaro and at Etzathin in the state of Jalisco. (Slide right). This print is a copy of the Etzathln virgin. Typically, she is dressed in white; framed by a bell-shaped opening that has a golden crown above it; on her breast a yellow flower-shaped clasp holds her folded mantle together; around the golden framing - which sometimes is encrusted with what appears to be jewels. (Slide left). Here we see vegetation and flowers on the upper half and rocks on the lower half; etc. This retablo version of the Cueva Santa, has a white ribbon with the title of Columba Mea in Foraminibus Peire. Only after finally finding a print in a book (Slide right), with the correct spelling of Peire as Petrae, was I able to decipher the saying, which is '0 my dove that art in the clefts of rocks'. I further found out that this is a saying in the Old Testament, Song of Solomon 2:14, commonly referred to as The Song of Songs. These writings are also a great source for many of the metaphors applied to the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, such as Tower of David, Rose of Sharon, lily among thorns, etc. The union of the title to the image seems to be a most appropriate one. Here I learned, that if you don't find what you are looking for right away, be patient and keep trying.
(Slide left and right). A rather rare subject matter in retablo form is Saint Christopher. Even though his small medals or prayer cards are still available today, one wonders why he was not more popular in the retablo sphere. I want to thank Kurt Stephen and Jim Caswell for furnishing and allowing me to use these two photographs. As the story goes, Christopher, who was a giant of a man, wanted to serve the most powerful person on earth. He started off working for a king, then the devil himself, and then decided to serve Christ. A hermit, who instructed him in the faith, told him that a good way to serve Christ was to transport travelers across a dangerous river. One day, a small child appeared and asked to be carried to the other side. The further Christopher advanced across the water, the heavier the burden became, as though he were carrying the whole world. The Child told him that he was Christ the King and as proof, told him to drive his worn out tree trunk in the ground. Christopher obeyed and the next day the dried out staff was luxuriantly green and full of dates. Christopher signifies "he who takes, carries or bears Christ". In both these retablos, we can see the giant carrying th~ Christ Child, the hermit with his lantern, and one of Christopher feet still in the water, indicating that he had just crossed the river. (Slide right). This late 1800 French holy card, although being different in several aspects, does show one of the feet still in the water. What is perhaps a lesser known fact, is what happened to Christopher after this incident. He traveled to Lycia in southern Asia Minor, where he proselytized so successfully that he was tortured and decapitated. Question, how did Christopher reach Lycia? (Slide right). This old German engraving seems to indicate that he found a very large horse as a means of transport. Notice that he is still bearing the Child and carrying the staff and is barefoot from having just crossed the river. Looking at the tops of the tree tops, one wonders if this German engraver was the precursor of the Mexican broccoli tree painter! The point here is that even a seemingly common and popular subject matter, may be uncommon and rare in retablo form.
(Slide left). For years I could not figure out who this saint was, and thus called him "Jesus in a strange red garment". Definitely not a very original title! The pleated white collar, laced sleeves and red robe also laced at the bottom, the rosary looped through a sash belt, did not help me whatsoever. I kept thinking that the white cross that is embossed on his chest might be the emblem of his order, but had no luck pursuing that line of thought. While looking up confraternities, their patents and summaries of indulgences, (Slide right), I came across two examples of this elusive saint. It is Saint Homobonus or San Homobono, in exactly the same style of dress! A cherub holds a pair of scissors as well as a tailor's tape measure. These are his attributes. He was the son of a merchant from Cremona, in the Po Valley of Northern Italy, and followed his father's footsteps as a tailor. He always acted with the most rigid honesty, led a model Christian life, and never missed the first matins nor the evening mass. While attending services, he fell prostrate and died right there in the aisle. Of note, is the fact that he was canonized within two years of his death. (Slide right). The second patent, dated 1764 and also Mexican, shows Homobonus - which means "a good man" - dressed more like a courtesan with several items of priestly attire being visible - a chasuble, stole and maniple. (Slide right). This copy of a retablo, that was auctioned in Mexico City, shows him dressed much like the courtesan shown in the previously slide. This search taught me to be patient but persistent, even though it may be frustrating and protracted in time.
(Slide left). This is another saint that required some thought and also a corroborating opinion, just to make sure. As we can see, the saint is seated in a chair, wears a bishop's miter, holds a crosier or crook-necked pastoral staff of a bishop, wears a bishop's rochet vestment, holds a quill in one hand and there is a quill holder or ink-well on the table. We can assume that he is a bishop, without much argument. But out of all the possible options, which is he? The quill usually refers to a Doctor of the Church. The Four Doctors of the Latin Church are St. Augustine, St. Gregory, St. Ambrose and St. Jerome. St. Jerome is usually shown with a lion, a skull, inside a cave, a cardinal's hat, etc. St. Augustine would be dressed like a bishop, but his garments should be black, as worn by the Augustinian order, and quite often he holds a flaming heart in his right hand. St. Gregory will o·ften have a dove in the background, but as a Pope he dresses completely differently from the bishop shown in this slide. I have gone with Saint Ambrose and have found that sometimes he is represented with a dove, which reflects divine inspiration of all his writings. (Slide right). The only comparable that I could find is an oil painting on canvas, as furnished to me by James Eddy. Although the quill he holds in his hand looks more like a dart and the dove in the sky is an eye in a triangle, I believe this to be Saint Ambrose. Here, I learned that it will sometimes help to first identify who the subject is not, so as to eliminate those possibilities from contention, and perhaps simplify the remaining choice of options by narrowing the field. This is what I did in the case of this retablo - eliminated of the Doctors of the Greek Church, which did not fit the bill, and then three Doctors of the Latin Church, which also were not proper. Having said this, I usually have a difficult time identifying bishops, Popes, and saints that are dressed like Roman centurions, even if their attributes and symbols are easily identifiable. e.g. A Pope that is dressed with his papal regalia, tiara, and triple cross may be of no help in identifying which Pope is being depicted. Many museums in Mexico have paintings on canvas that to this day remain "without LD. " .
(Slide left). The Holy Trinity or Santisima Tinidad, represents the doctrine which is central to Christian theology, that God is of one nature yet three beings - God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father has a golden sun symbol on His chest; the Son has a lamb; and the Holy Ghost has a dove. This reference is found in Matthew 28: 19. Translating divine beings into human images cannot be accomplished as two of the holy trio are not visible to man. Yet, it is difficult for believers to understand this symbolism, if it is not in human form. I will not go into all the many discussions, objections, counter objections, prohibitions, etc. that this painting has fostered over 400 years. (Slide right). This Italian chromo lithograph, which is identified as being non-orthodox, has a few minor differences from the retablo that is shown, but basically it is the same style of representation. In December 1789, a Mexican priest wrote to the Inquisition in Mexico City, that the Holy Trinity was being represented incorrectly, as shown in this slide. (Slide right). Although this is a black and white print, it too is of the same type. He stated that "the Holy Father should be depicted as an older person and the Holy Spirit as a dove". The decision came back from the Head Dominican Censor and also the Secretary of the Inquisition, that "although it would be better to paint this subject according to the approved version, this other version - the print with all figures alike - has not been expressly reproved! It would cause scandal and confusion, as we would have to change it in all the many churches that have this false kind of representation, which are more prevalent than the approved one". To me, this is an amazing decision. (Tell the joke about the dead dog and request for requiem mass). I believe that although Rome made the rules, the strict precepts were not necessarily followed in Mexico due to the local interpretation, for reasons of the inconvenience that could be caused, or perhaps other purported reasons. (Slide left). In this Holy Trinity, we see that the style is the same, but that color has been added. I do not know during what time period that the red, white and blue dress colors started being used or for what reason. (Slide right). In this retablo, we see that the lamb has been draped over the shoulder of Christ, perhaps alluding to his title of The Good Shepherd. This style of representation continued to be used, not only in Mexico, but in other countries as well. On March 15, 1929,-Pope Pius XI decreed a prohibition of depicting the Holy Ghost in the form of a human, and hence the Holy Trinity iri the form of three identical persons. What I learned here, is that we are lucky that Rome's orders were not followed because if they had been, we would today have many fewer representations of the non~ orthodox retablos and only have the authorized versions. N on-orthodox versions not only survived, but also continued to be produced along with the orthodox types. Some retablos or prints seem to follow the rules and thus we get many derivations in' which the Holy Trinity is incorporated. (Slide left). This sheet from an Italian magazine, shows four versions of the Holy Trinity in the orthodox manner. We see the dove representing the Holy Ghost and even color on the vestments. On one of the cards, the Christ is represented as a Christ Child. (Slide right). This derivation, although rather primitive in style, is often called Trinitarian Redemption in retablo form. (Slide left). This crucifixion scene with four saint and the Sorrowful Mother, can also be considered as a composition using the orthodox version of the Trinity. (Slide right). This Sagrada Familia retablo also incorporates the Trinity.
(Slide left). Saint Anne teaching Virgin· Mary to Read. 1 will not get into the discussion of Saint Anne's background, as it is lengthy and controversial. This is a very tender domestic scene in which we see Joachim observing from one side, while Anne is seated in a stylish chair. If we look more carefully at Mary, (Slide left), we note that with her left hand she holds a book and with the other she holds a pointer, which she guides along a line of writing. (Slide right). This style of representation was fairly common as we can see from this slide of a painting from a museum in Venezuela. Young children will often use their indicator finger to help keep their eyes on the proper spot. Father Johann Roten, of the International'Marian Research Institute in Dayton, Ohio, informs me that teaching children how to read is a reflection of the 16-19th century customs. There is some evidence for teaching the Torah to Jewish girls, but generally girls were taught to be good housewives. Exceptions were made for upper-class women. (Slide right). In this slide we see a photograph of a yad - whose primary meaning is "hand" - made of silver, which is used to guide the reader of the Torah and thus protect the parchment, while reading the law, from being damaged by hand oils. This Torah pointer also serves the function of insuring that the scroll is not touched by human hands. Father Roten also informed me "that scrolls of part of the Torah Pentateuch - were available, especially to Priest families such as that of Joachim." I cannot tell whether Mary is actually using a yad or not, but it certainly could be that she is. This search taught me to look beyond what is obvious and what you have identified, so as to better appreciate and understand the real meaning and value of what has been presented in your retablo.
The Jesuits, known for their educational and missionary labors, were lacking a patroness. One of their brethren, expressed his thoughts for the need of having a virgin for the benefit of the pious and to encourage their penitence, to a very religious and dedicated lady of his congregation. To shorten the whole tale, a Virgin appeared to her and was finally painted on canvas and named Nuestra Senora de la Luz. (Slide left). She was dressed in the Marian white and blue colors; with her right hand she is holding an individual by his left wrist and thus rescuing him from a gaping and flaming mouth of a monstrous head that symbolizes purgatory, hell or sins, depending on what book you read. The Christ Child is held in Her left arm. He is holding two hearts, one in each hand, while a winged angel offers Him additional hearts from a flat basket that is full of them. This happening seems to have taken place around 1722. (Slide right). Perhaps the only depiction I have seen containing a basket of hearts, other than the virgin being discussed, is a Dutch engraving titled Guardian Angel of the Jesuits. We. see an archangel, dressed in the usual Roman style regalia, holding a flat basket full of hearts in his left hand and raising a single heart towards heaven, with his right hand. A young looking kneeling priest also holds a heart in his hand. This perhaps represents his soul and love which he offers to the Society of Jesus. The Jesuit symbol, IHS, is in the sky surrounded by a frame of cherubic heads. The Latin phrase, translates as follows; "Angel of God who art my custodian, whom Divine Goodness has put me under your care, illuminate me, govern me and guide me on this day. Amen." Could there be a possible connection of this print with N S. de la Luz, with respect to the basket filled with hearts? One thing for sure, is that we know that Lucas Vorsterman I, was a prolific sculptor of many different religious themes. He lived between 1595-1675, or 47 years before the vision of Our Lady of the Light. It did not t(fke the Jesuits too lmig to bring this new cult to Mexico, for by 1742 there were altars in existence dedicated to N S. de la Luz. She is venerated in the city of Leon, in the state of Guanajuato, and is the patron of this city. There was a certain amount of discussion towards the end of the 18th century, concerning the head of the infernal dragon, which was thought to give room to idolatrous misinterpretation and thus it should be suspended. (Slide left). One can see, in this retablo, where only the demon's head and gaping mouth have been removed and a blank, cloud-looking space, replaces it. The rest of the composition remains the same. As far as I can tell, this type of representation was produced in very small quantities as compared to the retablo with the head and flaming mouth style. The result of this apologetic proposition, had no effect at all, as paintings, engravings, and retablos continued to be produced with the menacing jaws. (Slide right). This Spanish engraving of 1758, is like the 'standard' Mexican retablo of this virgin. The history of variations of Our Lady of the Light, not only in Spain, but also Mexico, is very interesting. (Slide right). In this Spanish representation of the 18th century, she has been transformed to Our Lady of Carmel or Virgen del Carmen, as the title below indicates. Here, the young soul that is being saved from the jaws of hell and the head with his flaming mouth, are both missing. In their place we see two Carmelite scapulars. All vestiges of small hearts are missing from the hands of the Child as well as from the basket. Again, scapulars have replaced the hearts. The Virgin remains dressed as N S. de. la Luz and not like Our Lady of Carmel. (Slide right). This is another variance, where she assumes the semblance of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal.
(Slide left). Here is another rather peculiar rendition of N S. de la Luz. I have covered the face and the title, but have left one attribute to help you identify it. What is your guess? (Slide right, with name and face). As you can see it is titled Lord Saint Joseph of the Light! This engraving was made by Joseph Morales in Mexico City in 1749. A copy of it was sent to the Provincial Qualifier in Mexico City by a disgruntled individual from Guadalajara, who complained about the dragon's mouth. The priest agreed with the complainant concerning the fact that the infernal mouth had been ordered removed by the Fourth Council of Bishops of Mexico, as in their opinion eternal penance in hell is not redeemable. Although the print pleased the Provincial Qualifier, because it shows Saint Joseph with the Christ Child, in his opinion the print should be withdrawn and suspended. I have never seen a retablo of St. Joseph of the Light. The lesson I learned here, is that variations from the original subject matter can occur even though they run contrary to the established norm. This can happen with more formal oil paintings on canvas, etchings and, as we have seen, even in the retablo paintings. The best laid rules of the Academia de San Carlos concerning the manner in which religious paintings were to be produced, may have applied to the local studios or workshops of easel painters of Mexico City, but seemingly did not really control the output of the more popular painters in other large and small towns of the hinterland. As has been noted, even the ecclesiastical authorities were not able to control the production of certain saints in a manner which they considered idolatrous e.g. Our Lady of the Light and The Holy Trinity discussed previously. I don't know if any comparison can be made with the collage of Our Lady of Guadalupe that caused so much controversy in Santa Fe, New Mexico or the crucifix inside a bottle in New York City, so I will merely present a print that was prohibited by the Inquisition in Mexico. (Slide left). As you can see, it shows what appears to be a Capuchin nun, superimposed on Christ Crucified on the cross. She has a crown of thorns on her head and her nun's habit is all patched up. The Galatians 2:19 which is quoted, should actually be Gal. 2:20 - I am crucified with Christ. As my wife noted, her habit below the waistline is almost transparent. I have no idea for what reason this was done. This is surely an etching whose representation could also be very controversial in the manner that it is constructed, even though it quotes a passage from the New Testament. To finish this presentation, I am going to rapidly present slides to show how the representation of a seated saint with his feet on a pillow, be it Christ or otherwise, can assume different titles in different locations. (Slide left). Saint Bartholomew. (Slide right). Senor Justo Juez - Lord of the Just Judgement. (Slide left). Jesus de Buena Esperanza - Jesus of Good Hope, from Peru. (Slide right). This also carried the title of Jesus of the Good Hope, but came from Mexico. I believe that a more correct title would be "Judgement of the Mendicant Fiddler by Christ of Lucca". (Slide left). Ecce HomoBehold the Man. (Slide right). Senor del Huerta de Atlacomulco - Our Lord of the Orchard of Atlacomulco. (Slide left). Santiago Mayor, Patron de la Espana - Saint James the Greater, Patron of Spain. One of my basic rules is that "You have to go with what you have". This does not mean that you have to like it or approve of it. But then, that is the joy of investigating and researching retablo subjects. As the French detective is said to exclaim - "Cherche la femme"; and the archeologist says - "Keep on digging"; my last resort is to - "Phone area code 956 and ask Kurt for help". It has been a pleasure talking to you. Many thanks.
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Ferguson, George. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Hall, James. DictionaJY of Subjects and Symbols in Art. New York: Harper Row, 1974.
JackIe, Clemens. Encyclopedia of Saints. London: Alpine Books, 1995.
Murray, Peter and Linda. The Oxford Companion to Christian Art and Architecture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Roig, Juan Ferrando. Iconografia de los Santos. Barcelona: Ediciones Omega, S.A., 1950.
Schenone, Hector H. Iconografia del Arte Colonial, Los Santos, Vol. I & II. Buenos Aires: Fundaci6n Tarea, 1992.