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A historic New Mexico tin and glass retablo,
Rio Arriba Tin Workshop, c.1890-1900
The more you know about such a piece and the tradition from which it comes, the more beautiful it gets. Look past the cracked hand-blown glass, the small size and the plain paper religious print to see a centuries-old devotional religious tradition transferred from the wealth and comfort of Old Spain to the impossibly remote mountains and valleys of poverty-stricken frontier New Mexico where every resource was scarce and precious.
These historic old tin and glass retablos were painstakingly hand-fashioned by local “Hojataleros” or, tinsmiths in frontier villages from salvaged commercial tin lard and other cans that were originally shipped
to New Mexico by wagon train over the old Santa Fe Trail. Because they were made of recycled, discarded materials, essentially scrap, they were less expensive and considerably easier to make than the earlier elaborately hand-carved and painted wooden retablos which preceded them.
This tin retablo was fashioned in what has often been referred to as the “Rio Arriba style” of tinwork, referring to Rio Arriba County in the upper portion of our state, Northern New Mexico, where the remote, ancient Medieval Spanish villages of Cundiyo, Las Trampas and Truchas still sit today nestled among the high mountains of the Truchas Peaks and Sangre de Cristo range.
The round retablo measures 8 1/4” in diameter. It retains its original, hand-blown glass front panel, now-cracked and its original black-and-white religious print. This print, with a detailed and beautifully-engraved image of the crucified Christ on an ornate Priest’s cloth cassock, was probably originally distributed to one of the faithful at a Mass in the old Santa Fe Cathedral possibly by the famous first Archbishop of Santa Fe, Jean-Baptiste Lamy himself.
The grateful congregant then took the precious print and paid or bartered with his or her tinsmith to make a tin frame to enshrine it and then carefully placed it on an honored place on a home altar or wall. Seen in this light, this humble object takes on a much nobler aspect; as a piece of intense devotion, a symbol of enduring faith and culture in the face of a harsh, unpredictable and dangerous land and an always precarious and uncertain existence. A universal symbol of the age-old story of the power and resilience of the human spirit.
Los Ojos Village and The Brazos Cliffs, Rio Arriba County, New Mexico
Photo source and © Geraint Smith Photography