By Lydia Gil
SANTA FE, New Mexico – Chicana artist Cristina Acosta has turned to sacred art as a means of exploring her religious and cultural heritage, incorporating aspects of her life, beliefs and family history into Madonna retablos.
“The tradition of the retablo (devotional image) reflects both the past and the present,” said the artist, whose works are now on display as part of an exhibit of contemporary retablos at this southwestern U.S. city’s El Museo Cultural.
The word “retablo” in Spanish dates back to the Renaissance and Baroque era and was used to refer to large screens that were placed behind altars in churches and were decorated with paintings, carvings, and sculptures.
These large altar screens then became prevalent in colonial Latin America as well, and by the 19th century oil-on-tin retablo paintings of Christ, the Virgin, and saints were commonly produced by amateur artists for devotional use in the home.
However, in parts of the southwestern United States, such as New Mexico and Colorado, retablos passed beyond the realm of sacred art into that of folklore.
Acosta said there are two types of retablos, one belonging to the tradition of Catholic saints and the other to that of “ex-votos,” or offerings of gratitude.
She says the first group is similar to the concept of icon painting in Byzantine art, in which the figures of saints or the Holy Family are painted in accordance with strict liturgical rules that define how the main figure should be portrayed.
“The counterpoint to that tradition is the ex-voto retablo, for which there are no rules but rather (the artist) creates a personal vision to give thanks for a blessing (received) or when a petition was heard,” she said.
It is within this folk tradition that her art is rooted.
Acosta said her retablos have served as a medium for meditating on her family heritage, her Latino identity and her role as a woman and an artist.
“My retablos are strictly related to my life, my Latina-Chicana cultural heritage in the southwestern U.S. and my personal opinions and life experiences,” she said.
Acosta, who now lives in Oregon, grew up in a Catholic family – the daughter of an Anglo-American mother and a Mexican-American father – in southern California and attributes that upbringing to the prevalence of religious images in her art, but she says her art is not dogmatic and merely depicts her cultural heritage.
“This (ex-voto) form of retablo gives me the opportunity to connect with the religion of my childhood without having to struggle with dogmatic questions that do not always correspond with who I am now,” she said.
Her Madonna retablos focus not so much on the Catholic figure of the mother but rather on the creative energy the Virgin evokes.
“When I work, I don’t think about challenging religious thought or stereotypes, but I think the result of certain images does tend to run contrary to those traditions,” Acosta said.
The artist pointed to her “La Conquistadora” (Our Lady of the Conquest) painting, which blends indigenous, ancient female images and concepts with the Catholic image of Mary.
Acosta also incorporates material in her work that alludes to her family history.
“My ancestors were well-known goldsmiths and silversmiths,” said Acosta, whose paternal great-grandparents were descendants of the original Spanish settlers who founded cities and villages throughout New Mexico.
“That’s why in my work I mix in gold, silver and copper metals into my oil paintings, (to) evoke the presence of those ancestors.”
Acosta said the idea for the series of Madonna retablos displayed in the Santa Fe exhibit first came to her 20 years ago as dream images.
“The dreams began during my pregnancy,” she said. “During that period I dreamed that I was a woman who was traveling north, crossing dusty plains and streams behind an ox-cart.”
Acosta calls them her “Maria dreams,” as that is how she remembers being called when those mental images and emotions came to her while asleep.
“The search for the meaning of those dreams eventually led me back to New Mexico, the land of my ancestors,” Acosta said. EFE