Copper in the Arts

June 2019

The Copper Art of Retablos

By Lisa Scheid

Retablos are small devotional paintings on tin and copper. A part of daily life in 19th and 20th century Mexico, the folk art provide a window into devotional and domestic life, according to Kevin Burns, assistant curator of The El Paso Museum of Arts (EPMA) in El Paso, Texas.

Metal retablos were displayed at major pilgrimage sites throughout the country, and in homes and churches. In March, EPMA’s retablos collection — among the largest in the United States — was featured in an installation of the museum’s key collections gifted by El Paso’s Hamilton, McKnight, and Roderick families, in a presentation called Joy and Suffering.

retablos.jpgAnonymous, Our Lady of Guadalupe​. 
EPMA, gift of Dr. Steven McKnight in honor of
Frank and Sara McKnight.

Burns said a piece that speaks across generations to the experiences at the border of the United States and Mexico is called, in English, “Our Lady of Guidance.” The manifestation of the Virgin Mary speaks to hopes of those touched by border crossings for guidance. 

Many of the retablos were attributed to anonymous artists but Nicholas Enriquez is one named artist on some, according to Burns.

Retablos were used at major pilgrimage sites in Mexico as well as homes and churches at a time when the Roman Catholic Church was under fire, according to Burns. People who lived in rural areas of Mexico looked to untrained artists who used available materials like tin and copper to create simple but unique devotional works.  

The installation highlighted 50 retablos that portrayed the Virgin Mary in her many roles including the Virgin of Guadalupe and the lesser known Our Lady of Solitude

“When considered together, EPMA’s retablos offer a framework for understanding the joys and sufferings in 19th and 20th century Mexico and demonstrate the continued desire, despite a lack of means, for personal devotional imagery,” Burns said.

The retablos will be on display again in September 2019 as EPMA completes its second major phase of its renovation.

“The reimagined galleries will continue to preserve the past, embrace the present, and shape the museum’s future,” said Dr. Victoria Ramirez, Director of the El Paso Museum of Art. “The EPMA seeks to remain a thriving center for the study and appreciation of art.”

The renovation is the largest the museum has undertaken since moving into the building in 1998; second to the 2018 reinstallation of the museum’s Kress Galleries of European Art. Located in the El Paso Arts District, the museum has amassed a collection of more than 7,000 works and hosts upwards of 12 special exhibitions annually.


The El Paso Museum of Arts, 1 Arts Festival Plaza, El Paso, TX,(915) 212-0300

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