The nineteenth-century retablo tradition, sacred and votive paintings on tin, reflects Mexico’s search for its cultural identity bringing forward the people’s necessity to invoke spiritual forces for peaceful solutions. More than 500 years later, the endurance of sacred images introduced by the first missionaries on the newly-conquered lands of the Americas by the Spanish Crown were copied by successive generations of untrained artists who learned their trade from artists following the European traditions.
Pilgrims who traveled along roadways such as El Camino Real between Mexico City and Santa Fe stopped at shrines leaving behind devotional images they brought with them, which caused the Mexican art to move northward. The main devotional art that had arrived in Mexico from other parts of the world can be traced to prints on paper and on Missals of paintings on wood, cooper and canvas created by European and Mexican artists. Few of those prints on paper or included on missals survive, although there were thousands in circulation among the populace. There was a separation between artist and subject matter involved in these prints, because the religious subject could be executed on any press, whether in Europe or, later, in Mexico. A typical print might be designed by an Italian painter, transferred into print by a Flemish engraver, printed on a Dutch press, and distributed by a Spanish merchant. The most desirable prints displayed the saint most realistically, and consumers made them more personal with the addition of tin work frames.
A strong European influence is recognizable through iconography in Spain and Viceregal Mexico, during the reform period of the Catholic Church. The religious iconography reflected the propaganda tactics imposed upon artists to assist in the Church’s dogma against the Protestant Reform movement. Viceregal Mexico was inundated with art from Spain and Flanders designed to coerce and convert. These devotional images graced churches as well as private homes. However, Viceregal Mexico slowly began to break from European influence and to deviate from traditional images in small ways. Also affecting this distinctly Mexican devotion are pre-Columbian precedents which were combined with European influences to produce this unique, hybrid art form. Workshops of retablo artists mass produced these paintings, which were sold in markets and shops near pilgrimage sites.