Mi Barrio: Female Saints and Heroes Exhibit

Photo Credit: Elpasoartmuseum.org

Photo Credit: Elpasoartmuseum.org

The exhibit of Female Saints and Heroes, on display at the El Paso Museum of Art (EPMA), is not unlike the women portrayed in the collection of paintings. Tucked away in the innermost point of the museum, this exhibit showcases a modest 26-piece collection of petite paintings, which would seem rather unremarkable at first glance when compared to the grandiose six-foot tall renaissance works hung in gold-plated frames just a few steps away. In fact, if you blink, you just might miss it. And yet despite its humble quality, the exhibit’s contents and its existence actually carry a great amount of significance.

Those 26 paintings are referred to as retablos (translated as “behind the altar”). The retablos are devotional images common throughout Mexico, which depict Catholic religious figures, especially saints. The EPMA houses a total of 900 of these types of paintings from the 1800s, but has chosen to display such a small portion of its collection for one very important reason; these are the only retablos that focus on women. According to the museum’s website, only 20% of all 19th century Mexican retablos depict female saints, and those that do were created specifically for a female audience. The idea was for average Mexican women to view these retablo saints as spiritual role models.

Unfortunately, it comes as no surprise that the frequency of these female-centered retablos should be so low. The history of underrepresentation of women in arts and media is long, and continues to this day. With this in mind, it is easy to walk into this exhibit ready to recognize symptoms of gender inequality or gender stereotypes. These retablos do have some disturbing recurring themes, such as the idea that a woman may become spiritually enlightened or worthy of praise only if she will suffer silently. (A trio of retablos that illustrate Saint Rita smiling peacefully with a wound on her forehead reinforce that theme.) Although the female retablos do demonstrate some signs of a male-dominated culture, it is also important to recognize the rather surprising amount of feminism that is also present in these paintings.

The Female Saints and Heroes retablos are more than portraits of women in traditional roles of housewife or mother. Churches were, and still are, considered very sacred spaces to followers of Catholicism. The fact that any female image would be hung upon a church wall as an example of a strong, wise, powerful person means that women at least had the potential to be highly regarded or admired, even in macho 19th century Mexico.  There are even two retablos featured in the exhibit, Trinity with Two Saints and Trinity and Six Saints, that include a woman amongst a group of male saints and warriors. “This exhibit is important,” reads one museum plaquard, “by reminding us how these larger-than-life women inspired the spritual devotion and action of everyday women in 19th century Mexico.”

Female retablos may be few and far between, they may be small, and they may even be a little somber at times. The point is that they give us glimpse into the role models of the Latinas who came before us. They are portraits of the women who many of our great, great grandmothers prayed to be like. This exhibit gives a space to the retablos that inspired the wisdom and strength of Mexican women who may not have had their voices heard in the 19th century, but who passed on those traits to the Latinas raising their voices and claiming their own space in the 21st century.

The Female Saints and Heroes exhibit is featured at the El Paso Museum of art through November 6.

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