Our Lady Refuge (Our Lady, Refuge of Sinners)

Nuestra Señora del Refugio (Our Lady, Refugio de Pecadores)

Feast day: July 4

Protector of oneself and for others.

Essay by Jillian Franzen

Our Lady Refuge of Sinners, or Refugiana, is one of the most popular images of devotion in nineteenth-century New Spain. Approximately 25% of all retablos created in Northern Mexico are of this devotion, and most were made by non-academic artists. This specific image of the Virgin Mary was first brought to Mexico by a Jesuit missionary in the eighteenth-century as a copy of a painting located in Frascati, Italy. All the representations of the Refugiana were based on this Italian copy causing the iconography, poses, and colors to remain relatively unchanged over time.

Refugiana is usually shown at half-length while holding a full-length Christ the Child standing on her lap. They are surrounded by clouds in front of a blue background, representing truth and heaven. Refugiana wears a red robe with a blue mantle draped over her shoulders that is usually decorated with gold monograms representing herself, Jesus, and sometimes Saint Joseph. The monograms can appear as initials or they can appear to be more ornamental. It is most common to see monograms of Mary and Jesus represented as M.A.R. or A.M.R. and I.H.S., respectively. Mary’s monogram appears on the retablos shown here and is topped with a crown alluding to her position as Queen of Heaven. Jesus’ monogram appears as a cross within the H and three nails, representing Christ’s Passion, beneath it (figs. 1, 2).

Saint Joseph’s monogram, I.O.S.F., is less common and does not appear in these examples. Jesus is depicted grasping his mother’s right-hand thumb with his left hand while dressed in a transparent white tunic. They are both shown as royal divinity because they wear gold crowns. Both figures gaze out and let the viewer feel like they are experiencing a divine revelation. Other attributes can include a garland of flowers or roses above their heads. These can represent paradise, their thorns; sin of humankind. Renaissance tradition also shows a garland of roses representative of the rosary of the Blessed Virgin. Stars, or stellarium, can be seen around Mary’s head representing Her virtues, privileges, and other important events in her life. Sometimes rays of light emerging from behind are included in the composition (figs. 2, 3). Traditionally, this represents life and divine energy and are only used for the Trinity and the Virgin Mary. Devotion to Our Lady Refuge of Sinners became so popular and widespread that the traditional Day of our Lord was moved to July 5 so, Refugiana could have her own feast day on July 4. She eventually became Patron of Zacatecas because that is where her image was first presented in Mexico.

Figure 1. Our Lady of Refuge/ Nuestra Señora del Refugio

Anonymous, Mexico. Nineteenth Century.

Oil on tin 14 x 10″. NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1966.6.90

Donor. Mr. Fran E. Tolland.

Figure 2. Our Lady of Refuge / Nuestra Señora del Refugio

Anonymous, Mexico. Nineteenth Century.

Oil on tin. 13⅞ x 9⅝”. NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1966.4.46.

Figure 3. Our Lady of Refuge / Nuestra Señora del Refugio

Anonymous, Mexico. Nineteenth Century.

Oil on tin. 14¼ x 10″ NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1966.1.12.

Donor: Dr. and Mrs. Andrew M. Babey.


Giffords, Gloria Fraser. Mexican Folk Retablos. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992.

Zarur, Elizabeth N. C. and Charles Muir Lovell, ed.  Art and Faith in Mexico: The Nineteenth-Century Retablo Tradition. Edited by. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2001.