Retablo (altarpiece)

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The Evolution of the Retablo


Folk Art from Peru

"Santero boxes" originated in Europe and came to Peru with the Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century. Before bringing them to Peru, the boxes were used as portable altars by medieval travelers and pilgrims and were carried by soldiers into battle during the Crusades. In Peru, they were used by the Spanish evangelists to teach the Catholic faith to the native "infidels".

They were carried into the remote regions of Peru by the muleteers who carried all the products imported into South America by the Spanish. The muleteers, traveling long and arduous journeys through the Andes, relied on the magic capacity of the boxes to protect them from mishaps on their routes. Often, they would not come across another living soul for many days and faced storms, loss of animals, sickness and the supernatural world that filled the Andes with spirits and demons. When they camped they placed them under a canvas awning with oranges and flowers and lighted candles to ask for protection during their trip.

From the 17th to the 19th centuries, the Santero boxes were gradually transformed and integrated into the rural peasant religious life in a way reflecting cultural syncretism. They were used in magic ritual functions in the remote mountain regions in July and August of each year. The boxes/altars presided over the animal branding ceremony, one of the most important in the community life, because it insured the abundance and fertility of the animals. The box was placed outside on a table, where the owners of the animals would request its permission to begin the branding. Different saints were considered patrons of specific animals. For example, Saint Mark was the patron of bulls and cows; Saint Luke, the patron of the puma or Andean lion. There are many areas in which the indigenous people incorporated components from the new Spanish colonialist religion into their centuries-old traditional religious rites.

The knowledge to produce these boxes was passed on from one generation to the next in families dedicated to creating and maintaining this traditional craft. Beginning in the 1940's, the production of Santero boxes had almost completely passed into oblivion because the muleteers, who traditionally carried them from one region to another had been replaced by 20th century roads and trucks.

Retablos Recognizing that new markets and audiences were necessary if this traditional art were to survive, Santero 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. The leading craftsman of this movement is Nicario Jimenez, descendant of generations of muleteers. He has developed the new style of testimonial retablos. Renamed "retablos" by a member of the Peruvian Indigenista movement, the Santero boxes have evolved into two types: costumbristas and testimonials.

The costumbristas depict the traditional festivals of the indigenous people such as Holy Week in Ayacucho, the branding of the bulls, bullfights, the Dance of the Scissors, the hunting of the condor, and Nativity crèches. They also depict scenes from daily life such as craftsmen weaving, making hats and musical instruments; market scenes and healing ceremonies.

The testimonials tell the story of the social and political changes that the Ayacucho region has suffered in the last fifteen years. One of the most common themes is that of terrorism, showing scenes of slaughter of peasants, armed fights, the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) guerrillas, and the army.

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.