Miracles on the Border: Retablos of Mexican Migrants to the United States

February 11, 2021 - April 25, 2021

Davis Gallery

Listen to a brief overview of the exhibition from venue curator Diana Tuite 

The votives on view, spanning the entirety of the twentieth century, were offered as thank you notes to the heavens by Mexican migrants and their families to commemorate the dangers of crossing the border and living in the United States. Filled with emotive detail, they eloquently express subjects of greatest concern to the migrants, such as the difficulty of finding work or falling sick in a foreign land and the relief of returning home. The word “retablo,” from the Latin retro tabulum (behind the altar table), originally referred to devotional paintings hung in Catholic churches in Europe. In Mexico, reflecting traditions embedded in local cultures by Spanish conquest beginning in the sixteenth century, retablo came to denote a small oil painting on metal placed on the wall of a shrine or church. Usually commissioned from local artists working anonymously, retablos feature both a written and a pictorial narrative. First-person vignettes, dated and inscribed with the supplicants’ names, draw on a traditional vocabulary such as “doy infinitas gracias’’ (I give infinite thanks). In the luminous illustrations, earthly figures share space with holy images and a dreamlike representation of the miracle. As they accumulate on church walls, both in Mexico and the United States, these votives become public records of private faith, fears, and familial attachments.

The exhibition is organized by the Princeton University Art Museum.

Milgros en la Frontera: Retablos de migrantes mexicanos a los Estados Unidos

Los exvotos expuestos aquí, que abarcan todo el siglo XX, fueron ofrecidos por migrantes mexicanos y sus familias para conmemorar los peligros de cruzar la frontera y vivir en los Estados Unidos. Llenos de detalles emotivos, expresan de manera elocuente los temas de mayor preocupación para los migrantes, tales como la dificultad de encontrar trabajo o enfermarse en tierra extranjera y el alivio de regresar a casa. La palabra “retablo,” del latín retro tabulum (detrás de la mesa de altar), se refería originalmente a pinturas devocionales colocadas en las paredes de las iglesias católicas en Europa. En México, debido a las tradiciones incorporadas a las culturas locales con la conquista española a partir del siglo XVI, retablo vino a significar una pintura pequeña al óleo sobre metal, colocada en la pared de un santuario ode una iglesia. Generalmente encargados a artistas locales que trabajan de forma anónima, los retablos presentan una narrativa tanto escrita como gráfica. Las viñetas en primera persona, fechadas e inscritas con los nombres de los suplicantes, recurren a un vocabulario tradicional como “doy infinitas gracias’’. En las ilustraciones luminosas, las figuras terrenales comparten el espacio con imagenes sagradas y una representación onírica del milagro. A medida que se acumulan en las paredes de las iglesias, tanto en México como en los Estados Unidos, estos exvotos se convierten en registros públicos de la fe, los miedos y los vínculos familiares privados.

La exposición está organizada por el Museo de Arte de la Unversidad de Princeton.


Related Events

Virtual Opening Celebration

Thursday, February 18

Celebrate, from the comfort of your home, our new exhibitions, Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948–1960 and Miracles on the Border: Retablos of Mexican Migrants to the United States. Take a deep dive into the exhibitions with videos and slideshows that offer a close-up look at the artworks, create your own works of art, enjoy themed party treats, and more.

Virtual Retablos Workshop with Ivan Calderon

Thursday, February 18

Join artist Ivan Calderon for a live virtual workshop featuring a discussion on the history of retablo paintings, followed by an art-making session. Participants will create a painting that tells an important life story, using similar materials as the works of art on view in the exhibition. Ivan Calderon is a teaching artist at the El Paso Museum of Art, where he is able to connect works on view with art history, theory, and technique for visitors of all ages. See more. 


Banner Image: Retablo of Jesús Enrique Aguilar, c. 1965–75. Oil on metal. 16 9/16 × 9 7/16 in. (42 × 24 cm). Princeton University Art Museum, gift of Douglas S. Massey, Graduate School Class of 1978, and Susan T. Fiske, L.2019.6.50