Retablos are wooden boxes filled with brightly colored figures arranged into intricate narrative scenes of religious, historical and everyday events important to the indigenous people of the highlands of Peru. Retablos probably originated with the Christian knights of the Crusades. The boxes were used as portable altars by medieval travelers and pilgrims and were carried by soldiers into battle during the Crusades.
In Peru, the boxes were used as small portable altars with Nativity scenes and other religious topics and were used by the Spanish evangelists to teach the Catholic faith to the indigenous people.
The early retablos brought by the Spanish merged with indigenous beliefs in the Andean region to acquire certain magical or symbolic properties which had been the attributes of local spirits before the conquest. This was particularly true of the retablos named after St. Mark, known as cajones sanmarcos (“boxes of St. Mark”). Since St. Mark is the patron saint of farm animals, his spirit was used to invoke protection of cattle from disease and theft. These early retablos were wooden boxes with figures inside carved from stone, ivory or wood.
Later, retablos evolved to include daily scenes in the lives of the Andean people, including harvests, processions, and feasts. The use of wood for the outside box remained, but other materials, such as gypsum, clay, or a potato-gypsum-clay paste mix, were increasingly used for the figures because of their ease of handling and durability. Retablos are very important as a tradition and art form in the Ayacucho area and we were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit an artist studio in Ayacucho and get the full tour. So let me share….
Above is Edwin Pizzaro a retablo maker in the hills above Ayacucho. (We liked his work right up until the time we thought that he failed to deliver a pre-paid retablo to our apartment - after much e-mail and phone calls it did arrive, 10 weeks late!) The retablo art form is a family affair and we were told that Ayacucho has a dozen or more families specializing in this art form. The process is fascinating, at least to me. The material to form the figures is a mixture of potato flour and a rubbery substance. Here Edwin is rolling the flour to form a figure:
His tools are his hands, some simple file like metal tools and metal rods. With those the figure takes form:
He quickly formed a skirt and hat and Voila - an Andean woman:
This process is repeated endlessly to form figures that he will use in a variety of retablo scenes:
The figures are then painstakingly painted:
Some figures are sold separately and we picked up several as Christmas ornaments:
Most others, of course find their way into retablo scenes. Here is one of the Nativity scenes (or Nacimientos):
And a more detailed look:
The size and detail of retablos varies tremendously:
Religious scenes are very popular:
As are rural scenes:
And finally, one of my favorites, is the newspaper stand on the main square in Ayacucho:
Recognizing that new markets and audiences were necessary if this traditional art were to survive, retablo makers accepted the challenge and began to depict their customs to show them to the growing urban sector of Lima, the capital, and to foreign countries. Five hundred years after having arrived in Peru and the Americas, the retablo is very much alive. Although probably no longer used as a ritualistic part of the branding ceremony, it is a window into the contemporary life and collective social thinking of the Andean people.