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Making Retablos


Mexico: Now


Religion, art


Retablos are three dimensional picture/sculptures contained in a box. Originally portable, 3-part altar pieces (triptych), they have continued and thrived as a folk craft portraying secular rather than religious themes. In Mexico they continue to be small boxes, like tiny houses, which open up to reveal a scene with objects and people. In New Mexico retablos have become religious pictures, like icons, painted on wood or framed panels usually portraying the lives of saints.


Students will make their own retablos, illustrating a village scene, a story, a legend, or other topic. They can also learn of the relationship of one aspect of religion, church art, to the daily lives of the Mexican people.

Level of Difficulty

Basic-No great complexity of skills or sophisticated thought involved.



Have the students decide individually what they would like to portray. They can get ideas from their textbook, other exercises from this handbook, magazines, etc. Scenes from folktales of Mexico are an interesting source. A theme can also be set such as agriculture, Mexican family life, markets, festivals or holidays, which students could research. Have the students sketch preliminary plans in pencil.

To complete the retablos follow these steps:

Here are some recipes for making the small figures:

Make animals and people from pipe cleaners

Salt and Flour dough

Bread dough

Fake Varnish


Retablo, triptych, secular, religious, icon

Related Activities

To give full meaning to this activity the students should know the background of the retablo. Examples of triptych and retablos can be found in most books of Mexican art. Explain the following: retablos developed partly as an evangelizing tool. En order to reach small groups of population, missionaries or priests needed to carry with them examples of their teachings. Retablos can be carried and used to illustrate lessons or serve as "props" for religious celebrations. Once Catholicized, people in small villages certainly could not afford expensive paintings or ornamentation for village churches. They made their own retablos and church art became part of their everyday life. With time, they began to make retablos showing scenes of secular life as well.


Bradley Smith, Mexico: A History in Art, New York: Doubleday, 1968.