Art @ Home: Tell an Important Story

In the Miracles on the Border: Retablos of Mexican Migrants to the United States exhibition, there are 50 retablos on display. Retablos are a type of art that features a story that is shared through words and images, and they have a long history.

The works in this exhibition are called ex-votos. This is a type of retablo created as an offering of thanks to a saint or to a divinity, often in tribute for their intervention in a personal tragedy or setback. The word “retablo,” from the Latin retro tabulum (behind the altar table), originally referred to devotional paintings hung in Catholic churches in Europe. In Mexico, reflecting traditions embedded in local cultures by Spanish conquest beginning in the sixteenth century, retablos became known as small devotional paintings, made on metal, that are placed on the wall of a shrine, church, or home altar. These works are usually commissioned from local artists, working anonymously, but signed and dated by the person requesting the painting.

Let’s spend some time trying to “read” the story that is told in one of the retablos, beginning with the painted images at the top of the work of art.

Retablo of Venancio Soriano, mid-20th century, oil on metal, 15 x 31 cm (5 ⅞ x 12 3/16 in.). Princeton University Art Museum. Gift of Jorge Durand and Patricia Arias. 

What do you think might be happening here? What details do you notice?

The story at the bottom of the retablo is written in the Spanish language; here is an English translation.

Venancio Soriano. While at work in Harlingen, Texas, I contracted a grave illness of the left lung that was thought incurable. I offered to visit the miraculous little Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos and bring her this retablo as a sign of gratitude for her relief. 

Think about your own life. Do you have a story of something that happened to you that could be thought of as a miracle? Or, perhaps you have something that you’re particularly grateful for in your life?

Create a drawing of this important moment, and include a written account of it on the sheet. You can arrange it the way many of the retablos are, with the image on the top and the story below. Or, you can intersperse the story at different places on the page. Use whatever drawing materials you have available—pencils, colored pencils, paint, markers, drawing paper, colored paper, etc.

Take a photograph and share your art with us @ColbyMuseum on Facebook or Instagram using the hashtag #ArtAtHome.