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11 Gossipy Confessions I Learned from Mexican Folk Art / Gonzalo Hernández / Gonzalo Hernández

Retablos are a special kind of painting—they combine imagery with a sentence or two, thanking a saint or other religious figure for intervening in someone's life. Although the practice is ancient, it's now a form of Mexican folk art. Many retablos are funny and relatable across cultures.

Below, I've collected 11 tremendous examples of modern retablos, along with English translations. Prepare for a wild devotional ride!

1. UFO Cow Abduction vs. Jesus

Who's Being Thanked: Jesus (specifically, Santo Niño de Atocha).

Thanked For: Alien cow abduction and debt forgiveness.

Full Translation: Juaquin Ramirez took his animals to drink water from the Jaguez and all of a sudden, a UFO showed up and took a cow that belonged to his friend. He gives infinite thanks to the boy of Atocha that they didn’t take him and that his buddy believed him and didn’t bill him for the cow. Texmelucan, 1969.

2. The Diarrhea that Saved a Life

(Image: Retablos.)

Who's Being Thanked: The Lord of Chalma.

Thanked For: 9/11 diarrhea.

Full Translation: Alfredo Gutierrez gives thanks to Lord Chalma because he gave him a strong diarrhea and he became late for work as a waiter for one of the restaurants of the Twin Towers in New York and he got saved from dying. 11 Sep 2001.

Translation Note: The Spanish translates literally as "Mister Chalma," which leads us to some complex history surrounding The Lord of Chalma.

3. She Stopped Alphabetizing the Animals

(Image: Retablos.)

Who's Being Thanked: Saint Francis of Assisi.

Thanked For: Saving the pets from boredom...and providing a new teaching job.

Full Translation: When they closed the school where my wife was a teacher for many years, she became very sad and acquired the habit of giving classes to the animals of the house. I, very worried, prayed to Saint Francisco and he made the miracle that finally they give her a place as a teacher at another school and now she doesn’t have the bad habit of alphabetizing the poor animals that were very bored.

4. A Candle for the Virgin

Who's Being Thanked: The Virgin Mary (specifically, Our Lady of Guadalupe).

Thanked For: A good man.

Full Translation: Virgin of Guadalupe, I offer you this candle for allowing me to find a good man that loves me and asks me to marry him without caring about my life as a whore. I thank you, bringing you this to your altar. Carmen Hernandez. La Merced, Mexico 2004.

5. No More Eating in Bed

(Image: Retablos.)

Who's Being Thanked: Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos (a revered statue).

Thanked For: Ant infestation.

Full Translation: My wife started eating in bed and it was filling everything with crumbs. They were very annoying. Besides, she was making so much noise chewing that I couldn’t sleep or watch TV in peace. The worst is that I’m on a diet. Thanks to my praise of [the Lady of] San Juan, an army of ants got in the bed, attracted to the food, and they stung her so much that she’s got no more will to eat in bedroom.

6. Holy Mother, Look at That Grim Reaper Tattoo

Who's Being Thanked: The Virgin Mary.

Thanked For: Awesome tattoos.

Full Translation: Jeno Martines tattoo. Thanks Little Virgin for my tattoos. Tepita Mex. 21 Nov '07

Translation Note: Tatu is slang for "tattoo" (tatuaje), so it's possible that "Tatu" is a nickname for Mr. Martines.

7. Giving Thanks for Extreme Sports Injuries Averted

(Image: Retablos.)

Who's Being Thanked: Saint Charbel Makhluf.

Thanked For: Preventing death from extreme sports.

Full Translation: I thank Saint Chanbel [sic] for saving me from the fall from the parachute because I broke a cord when I was practicing extreme sports with my friend La Chequio in Valle de Bravo. Toluca, Edo. Mex. 1994. [Barbara] Pietrasantra.

8. A Perfect Lion Act

(Image: Retablos.)

Who's Being Thanked: The Virgin Mary (specifically, Our Lady of Guadalupe).

Thanked For: Preventing death at the circus.

Full Translation: April 30, 1980. A runaway lion jumped on me. Seeing the danger, I invoked the Little Virgin of Guadalupe, managing to subdue him without causing me any damage. My act went perfectly. -Seferino. It happened in the Atayde circus on the season in Mexico.

9. The Fire-Eater Made Whole

(Image: Retablos.)

Who's Being Thanked: The Virgin Mary

Thanked For: Relief from mouth-burn.

Full Translation: When I was working as a fire-eater on the streets of the city of Mexico, I burned my mouth by accident. Asking you relief, Little Virgin, and you concede me that and I can go back to earn my living. Thank you for your favor. Toribio April 30, 1998

Translation Note: This one has various misspellings and grammatical errors, but we've tried to translate it as closely as possible to the original.

10. Extramarital Pharmacy Flirting

(Image: Retablos.)

Who's Being Thanked: The Virgin Mary, specifically The Virgin of Zapopan, also known as Our Lady of Expectation.

Thanked For: Getting away with flirting.

Full Translation: They told my wife that I was flirting with a pharmacy employee and she received me furious and jealous and wanted to kick me out of the house, and only by the intervention of Our Lady of Zapopan, I could make her understand and convince her that they were all gossip from some nosy old lady.

Translation Note: Again this one has grammatical issues, and it's a massive run-on sentence. But hey, I'm just gossiping.

11. Near-Death By Trumpet

(Image: Retablos.)

Who's Being Thanked: Saint Pancras of Rome.

Thanked For: Averting death due by trumpet.

Full Translation: The girl Rosita Fernandez thought it was very funny to blow her trumpet when her dad was sleeping but, in doing so, she caused him a heart attack that sent him to the hospital. She thanks Saint Pancracio that her dad didn’t die and promises not to do any more pranks.

More Like This!

Check out, the I Thank the Virgin Tumblr, and Retablos & ex-votos on Facebook. If your favorite site for retablos isn't here, please leave it in the comments!

Special thanks to Holly Covella for research help on this post!

© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Boston's Museum of Fine Arts Hires Puppy to Sniff Out Art-Munching Bugs
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Some dogs are qualified to work at hospitals, fire departments, and airports, but one place you don’t normally see a pooch is in the halls of a fine art museum. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is changing that: As The Boston Globe reports, a young Weimaraner named Riley is the institution’s newest volunteer.

Even without a background in art restoration, Riley will be essential in maintaining the quality of the museum's masterpieces. His job is to sniff out the wood- and canvas-munching pests lurking in the museum’s collection. During the next few months, Riley will be trained to identify the scents of bugs that pose the biggest threat to the museum’s paintings and other artifacts. (Moths, termites, and beetles are some of the worst offenders.)

Some infestations can be spotted with the naked eye, but when that's impossible, the museum staff will rely on Riley to draw attention to the problem after inspecting an object. From there, staff members can examine the piece more closely and pinpoint the source before it spreads.

Riley is just one additional resource for the MFA’s existing pest control program. As far as the museum knows, it's rare for institutions facing similar problems to hire canine help. If the experiment is successful, bug-sniffing dogs may become a common sight in art museums around the world.

[h/t The Boston Globe]

Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.
Mütter Museum Showcases the Victorian Custom of Making Crafts From Human Hair
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

During the Victorian era, hair wasn’t simply for heads. People wove clipped locks into elaborate accessories, encased them in frames and lockets, and used them to make wreaths, paintings, and other items. "Woven Strands," a new exhibition at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, explores this historical practice by featuring dozens of intricate works culled from five private collections.

According to Emily Snedden Yates, special projects manager at the Mütter Museum, hair work—as it’s called today—was common in England and America between the 17th and early 20th centuries. The popularity of the practice peaked in the 19th century, thanks in part to Queen Victoria’s prolonged public mourning after her husband Prince Albert’s death in 1861. People in both the UK and U.S. responded to her grief, with the latter country also facing staggering death tolls from the Civil War.

With loss of life at the forefront of public consciousness, elaborate mourning customs developed in both nations, and hair work became part of the culture of bereavement. "[The 19th century was] such a sentimental age, and hair is about sentiment," exhibition co-curator Evan Michelson tells Mental Floss. That sentimental quality made hair work fit for both mourning practices as well as for romantic or familiar displays of fondness.

Palette work culled from the collection of Evan Michelson and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Palette work from the collection of Evan Michelson
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Most hair artworks were made by women, and created solely for the domestic sphere or as wearable trinkets. Women relied on multiple techniques to create these objects, fashioning wreaths with hair-wrapped bendable wires—a process called gimp work—and dissolving ground hair into pigments used to paint images of weeping willows, urns, and grave sites. Watch fobs, necklaces, and bracelets were woven using an approach called table work, which involved anchoring hair filaments with lead weights onto a table and using tools to twist them into intricate patterns through a hole in the furniture’s surface. Yet another technique, palette work, involved stenciled sheets of hair that were cut into various shapes and patterns.

Hair work remained popular until World War I, according to Michelson, who co-owns New York City's quirky Obscura Antiques and Oddities shop and organized "Woven Strands" along with 19th century decorative arts expert John Whitenight.

“Women hit the workforce, and death occurred on such a huge scale that it really swept away the old way of mourning and the old way of doing things,” Michelson says. By the early 20th century, tastes and aesthetics had also changed, with hair work beginning to be viewed “as something grandma had,” she explains.

The Mütter’s exhibition aside, people typically won’t see hair work in major museums. Being a craft primarily performed by women at home, hair works were usually passed down in families and often viewed as worthless from a financial and artistic perspective.

“A lot of hair work was discarded,” Michelson says. Many owners repurposed the shadowbox frames often used to display hair work by removing and tossing the artworks within. Works stored in basements and attics also frequently succumbed to water damage and insects. Antique dealers today typically only see hair jewelry, which often featured semi-precious materials or was encased in a protective layer.

Sepia dissolved hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Sepia dissolved hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Yet examples of hair wreaths, palette work, and other delicate heirlooms do occasionally surface. They’re prized by a small group of avid collectors, even though other connoisseurs can be grossed out by them.

“People have this visceral reaction to it,” Michelson says. “They either gasp and adore it—like ‘I can’t get over how amazing it is’—or they just back away. There are very few other things where people are repulsed like this … In the 19th century no one batted an eyelash.”

“It’s a personal textile,” Snedden Yates explains. “It’s kind of like bone in that it doesn’t really decompose at the same rate as the rest of our bodies do. It’s not made of tissue, so if you keep it in the right environment it can be maintained indefinitely.”

Table work culled from the collection of Eden Daniels and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Table work from the collection of Eden Daniels
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

“Woven Strands” features examples of gimp work, palette work, table work, and dissolved hair work. It’s often hard to trace these types of artworks back to their original creators—they typically don’t bear signatures—but the curators “really wanted to find hair that you could connect to an actual human being,” Michelson says. “We chose pieces that have provenance. We know where they came from or when it was made, or who actually donated the hair in some cases, or what the family name was. We also picked out things that are unusual, that you don’t see often—oddities, if you will.”

Woven hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Woven hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Displayed in the Mütter Museum’s Thomson Gallery, “Woven Strands” opens on January 19, 2018, and runs through July 12, 2018. On April 7, 2018, master jeweler and art historian Karen Bachmann will lead a 19th century hair art workshop, followed by a day-long historical symposium on the art on Sunday, April 8.

Michelson hopes that “Woven Strands” will teach future generations about hair art, and open their minds to a craft they might have otherwise dismissed as parochial or, well, weird. “We hope that people see it and fall in love with it,” she says.


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