Copyright: New Mexico State University
On July 5, 2004
While surfing eBay in search of Mexican retablos, I happened to find one, which was described as a "Fabulous 19th Cent. Rare Retablo of The Holy Family". The starting price was $125.00 and one week later the auction closed, not having received one bid. Before the end of the auction time, I asked the sellers if they would accept a bid of $100.00 if it were not sold. The reason for my asking this about this 14" x 10" painting on tin, was that the photographs were of very poor quality and the piece itself did not appear to indicate that the actual item was in any better condition. My inquiry was not answered and the retablo was relisted for the period of one week and at the same starting price!
The more that I looked at the same bad photos, I noticed that there was something different about this piece. Without much strain on the eyes, I could make out the title of La Sagrada Familia. On further scrutiny, it became apparent that there were an additional couple being presented, for a total of 6 saints plus the Christ Child. This fact by itself, was enough for me to want this retablo regardless of its condition. I doubt that there are many serious - or should I say sane - collectors that would have given it a second glance or consideration. It turned out that I was correct in my assumption. No one but me made a bid! I got it for $125.00 on July 19th.
Even before receiving this item, I, believed that there' were several obvious discrepancies about the representation of this subject matter. The title and the alignment of the six saints on either side of the Child are two of the most noticeable ones. These will be discussed later.
The retablo arrived four days later and it was plain to see that the photographs on eBay weren't too far off (see Figure 1). It was in a fairly rough condition. As can be seen on the attached photocopy, there were four horizontal creases across the face of the retablo. These lines are visible because of the paint loss caused by the distorted tinplate sheet. There were a few indentations along the edges, but of no consequence to the painting. The method that I have used for years to correct these faults, is to use the buttend of a plastic handle of a screwdriver and give the protuberance or fold lines, a good whack or even more if so required. This procedure does not affect the painted portion itself, and by getting the surface down to a more even level all over, it actually helps to protect the rest of the piece. To get the horizontal creases flatter, the above process was tried, but to no avail.
Even placing the top upper edge of the fold along the straight edged of a workbench and trying to reverse the bend manually was not effective. This particular retablo is the most stiff and unplyable tinplate that I have ever seen! The normal run of Mexican retablos may vary slightly in their thickness or gauge, but all of the ones that I have personally handled have been fairly ductile. En~lish mills, which probably furnished most of the tinplated material to Mexico in the 19t century, when cold-rolling steel sheets would end up with what is referred to as "full hard" or a steel that is not ductile. Apparently the vast majority of full hard steel was annealed to make it more pliable and therefore useful as an end product for certain applications. I cannot say where the material for this retablo originated, but judging by its lack of pliability, it may have by-passed the annealing process, before going to the plating section. I will not insult the sensibilities of any purists who may read this article, by telling you how I managed to somewhat reduce the four horizontal creases. Just think of a block of Indian mahogany and a hammer.
The title of La Sagrada Familia - The Holy Family - is clearly seen towards the bottom of this painting. When retablo collectors think of this subject, it usually is a depiction of Mary, the Christ Child and Joseph in that order, from left to right (see Figure 2). The figures are all standing and the parents hold their child's hands. Their dress is fairly standard: she has a cream/white scarf over her head and is dressed in red and blue; the child wears a loose-fitting gown, whose c'olor usually varies; and Joseph is in his standard green and golden yellow garments and holds a flowering staff; all wear sandals. Sometimes this group is referred to as the Terrestrial Trinity whose cult was stimulated and apparently spread during the Counter Reformation. Occupying the central position up on high, are God the Father, who blesses the ones below and the Holy Ghost, represented by the white dove. This is the case in about 60% of the time, while roughly 40% of the times only the dove is present. When this Celestial Trinity appears with the Holy Family, one could call this composition the Dual Trinities. Because of the apparent standardization of this theme, as to color and general positioning of the figures, it would seem to indicate that holy cards or prints were the source for painters in rural Mexico for La Sagrada Familia.
By adding Saint Anne next to Mary and Saint Joachim next to Joseph in the above family grouping - that is Mary's parents - we come up with what should be properly called Los Cinco Senores - The Five Holies. This is the way that this thematical representation is known in Mexico. In retablos, the format changes slightly by having La Santisima Trinidad - The Holy Trinity - replacing God the Father and the Holy Ghost (see Figure 3). This type of representation is not very common in the retablo format.
A variation of the above is of course La Mano Poderosa - The Powerful Hand in which the Five Holies are sometimes shown on the fingertips of an open hand, palm facing the viewer in an upright position. Other times, the hand may be in the horizontal position and the saints are lined up above it. This hand is stigmatized and as such represents the right hand of God the Son. Here again, this theme has many different ways of representing the blood that spouts from the stigmata of Christ, the discussion of which I leave for another occasion.
In the case of this particular retablo, who are the two additional figures that are present? This whole parentela or relatives/kinfolk subject is very complex and multifaceted in its representational forms, be it on canvas paintings or three-dimensional carvings. The cult probably started in Flanders and Germany, and had various ups and downs with respect to its popularity according to the dictates from Rome. Among the reputed sources for this cult is The Tree of Jesse, The Tree of David, The Kinship of Mary, The Anna Hand, The Golden Legend, The Kinship of Christ, and etc. It thus is of no surprise that some European paintings have 17 or even over 20 relatives of the Virgin depicted. Very often, it seems that the iconographical elements of each of the above named retablo sources have been attempted to be syncretized according to local customs. This has given rise to a new variation of the original intent of the art form, which thus may lead to a good chance of it being misidentified. The Council of Trent condemned this tradition of showing The Five Holies, and yet it continued in the same manner in Mexican retablos 250 years later!
Having so many persons from which to choose, but only two that would hopefully correctly fit into my retablo slots, was at the very least an intimidating factor. After having pondered over the number of possibilities, I decide to limit my search to Mary's kinfolk. The choices were: her parents - Saints Anne and Joachim; her maternal grandparents - Emerentiana and Stellanus; her sisters and their husbands - Mary Cleophas and Alphaeus, or Mar)) Salome and Zebedee; her uncle - Efrain and Ismeria; her cousin - Elizabeth (Isabel) and Zacharias ..
With this list in hand, I then started to look for: a saint (because of the halo above the head of the man I was trying to identify); who was probably a religious person (because of the style of dress); was a practicing clergy (because of the book in hand) and perhaps elderly (because of his beard), who would match or come close to matching one of the above named spouses. Since Anne and Joachim have already been identified, I eliminated them. All the other male relatives named above, except Zacharias, were next to impossible to readily find any information on.
Saint Zacharias was a member of the priestly class. It was the custom for the priests, whose week it was for them to serve in the temple, to draw lots each day to see who was to perform what ritual. When he was performing the task of offering incense on the altar, Archangel Gabriel appeared and told him that a son was to be born to he and his childless wife. His name was to be John. Since both he and his wife were elderly, he requested the angel to give him some sign. For doubting this announcement he was stricken dumb. When the newborn child was about to be circumcised, he wrote on a tablet "John is his name". From that moment on Zacharias regained his speech. His son was to become John the Baptist. I also read somewhere, that Zacharias is said to have presided over the espousal of the Virgin and Joseph.
Saint Elizabeth, Zacharias' wife, is not an unfamiliar figure in religious art. The scene of The Visitation, where the expectant Mary is shown going to Elizabeth's house, is a well-known religious theme. Quite often, their respective husbands are also present. Joseph is sometimes shown to be younger than Zacharias is, although just as often they are both shown as elderly bearded men. If this couple is the two additional figures of my retablo, there would appear to be a problem with the youthful representation of Elizabeth towards the bottom of the right side. Apocryphally, she is described as a woman of advanced age like her husband. The lack of any specific iconographical attributes, other than her young maidenly dress, does not help the process of identification. But by the same token, why is Saint Anne, the Virgin's mother, also not shown as a mature woman? Her facial composition and texture is that of a woman in the same age bracket a her daughter and her niece!
I believe that the painter of my retablo copied this subject matter from a print or other unknown source, and did not deliberately make these two matrons look like younger women. Thus, in my opinion, the two additional members are saints Elizabeth and Zacharias, until such time as I can discover facts to the contrary. Many times, on more formal canvas paintings of The Visitation scene, the two women are shown as younger ladies. This would indicate that showing Elizabeth as a younger person is really not something out ofthe ordinary.
There is one more important variance or difference from the norm in this new retablo and that is the positions of the individuals. In general, when the Holy Family is represented, all the female saints are lined up on the left side and all the male saints on the right of the central figure, the Christ Child. I say "in general", as I have a La Mano Poderosa in which only Saint Anne and Saint Joachim have transposed their positions (see Figure 4). In this retablo, the figures are reversed from the general norm. It is a mirror image of what is generally considered standard. The intriguing question, which I cannot answer, is why this switch? One can come up with many different theories or ideas, but I leave this up to someone else to research and explain.
There are some additional points relevant to this particular piece. The rays seen around the Holy Ghost, Christ and Mary's heads as well as the cuffs of Mary's sleeves have been incised into the surface and may have been filled with gold paint at one time. This would certainly have added to the richness of this work. The Christ Child sits on top of the globe, symbolizing the Salvator Mundi - Savior of the World - theme. The world or orb is supported by two double-winged angel heads and by being in the Holy Chalice, would evoke the allegorical representation that the globe is actually the Holy Host and the symbol of the Eucharist. The left foot of the child rests on a skull (Calvary being the "place of the skull"). He holds the cross, whose vertical member extends downward to the hands of his mother, whose looks and stance reminds one of the Mater Dolorasa or Our Lady of Sorrows theme. The sun and the moon in a darkened sky refer to the biblical passage that "the heavens went into mourning at the death of the Saviour". All of these symbols are portents of His future. It is interesting to see the amalgamation of these symbols of the Crucifixion and what I from now on will call La Santa Parentela or The Holy Kinship. As they say, this rough looking retablo is really a symbol of something bigger that also deserves a place in the realm of retablos.