in New Mexico are Catholic devotional panel paintings of saints and holy persons. The most common meaning of the Spanish term retablo is altar screen or reredos. The English term "retable" is its cognate; both terms derive from the Latin retrotabulum, meaning a shelf or structure for images behind the altar table. The retablo or altar screen is an assemblage of paintings, either painted directly on it or attached to it, sometimes with niches for pieces of sculpture. However, in Mexican and New Mexican usage the term retablo has also come to mean an individual panel painting. The term is used in colonial documents, such as estate inventories listing personal possessions, often described as pinturas de retablo or santos de retablo. Such images are distinguished from pinturas en lienzo (or simply lienzos), which are paintings on canvas. The New Mexican retablo, then, is a religious painting on a wood panel.
In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century New Mexico, panels were cut from ponderosa pine logs and painstakingly shaped with adzes and chisels. The surface of the panel was then covered with a finely ground gesso mixed with wheat paste for binder. The gesso served to fill in surface imperfections and provided a smooth ground for painting. In the eighteenth century, oil paints imported in small quantities from Mexico were used to paint retablos. By the early nineteenth century, in the cases of both retablos and bultos (polychrome wood sculptures), santeros (the carvers and painters of figures of saints) began using water-based paints that they prepared themselves from plant and mineral sources, some local and some imported. Red was prepared from cinnabar, iron oxide, and cochineal, among other sources. Yellow was usually made from plants such as rabbit bush (chamisa). Blue was usually prepared from imported indigo. Brown came from local iron oxides, and black from carbon. White was achieved by leaving the gesso ground exposed. In the early 1800s wool weaving was a major New Mexican industry, and imported cochineal, indigo, and local plant dyes were all available to the santeros from weavers who used them for dyeing yarns. The paint technology of the early 1800s combined traditional European methods with those used by Pueblo Indians in the Southwest who painted wall surfaces and wooden ceremonial objects, as well as cotton fabric and hides. After a retablo was finished, it was usually coated with a protective varnish
Retablo, San Juan. Artist unknown; New Mexico,
c. 1840-1860. Oil, gesso on cottonwood panel. © Esto.
of pine resin. This surface darkens with age, so that now the original brilliant colors used by the artist are often hidden.
The earliest Catholic paintings in New Mexico in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries were either lienzos imported from Mexico, or paintings on deer, elk, and buffalo hides. By the second half of the eighteenth century local artists were painting wood retablos in a provincial academic style that drew heavily on Mexican Baroque prototypes. Most surviving examples are painted over a red bole ground in sparsely applied oils, suggesting the scarcity of the imported oil paints. There are two main styles from this period. One has been attributed to the explorer and cartographer Bernardo Miera y Pacheco (1714-1785) who came to New Mexico in 1754 and the other to the Franciscan friar Andrés García who served in New Mexico missions from 1749 to 1779. Neither attribution has firm evidence to support it. A third artist referred to as "The Eighteenth-Century Novice" produced a large group of oil-painted retablos in the