|Joan of Arc, Ann's favorite saint, was her first retablo project.|
Raleigh, NC. June 30, 2010. There are times when an
inspiration feels like the pieces of a puzzle coming together.
For Ann Burt, a Regnum Christi member based in Raleigh,
NC, discovering her calling to create retablo art was one
of those times.
The Icons of the Poor
Retablo art is a
form of devotional painting that originated in Mexico after the
Spanish conquest. During the 18th and 19th century, peddlers would
go door-to-door selling the humble works of art, created on
tin or wood, to people who could not afford fine
works of art, but who wanted some visual reminder of
their faith in their homes. The paintings, created by untrained
artists, were often primitive depictions of Our Lady, Jesus, or
It was on a trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico,
that Ann first encountered these visual reminders of the faith.
Coming from the East coast, she was struck by the
omnipresence of the faith.
“It’s a very spiritual place. I think
to someone who lives there, it’s normal to live with
all these beautiful shrines and images everywhere. But when someone
like me comes to visit, it’s just amazing. I fell
totally in love with the devotion that these people have
in their whole lives,” she said.
|Ann's retablo version of Our Lady of Guadalupe..|
She began collecting retablos
as a hobby, simply because the rustic little paintings with
their depictions of Mary and the saints delighted and edified
her. To her, each retablo told a story, like an
icon, conveying an intangible faith through a tangible artistic medium.
And that connection between faith and art was something
that she had not yet made in her own personal
life. Despite her re-conversion to the Catholic faith almost 30
years ago, her career as an independent artist for the
past 20 years, and her membership in a Catholic artists’
guild, she had never created works of art that reflected
her Catholic faith.
“I’ve been an artist my whole life,
doing murals and specialty, high-end wall treatments in people’s homes—nothing
to do with retablos. But over time, in my spiritual
journey, I was asking the Lord, ‘I have this talent
you’ve given me and I’m not sure I’m using it
the way you want me to. What can I do
to use it the way you want?’”
The retablos were
the answer to her prayer.
“It was like a puzzle
fitting together,” she said. “I’ve always had a connection to
|Ann Burt, the artist.|
particular saints, and the retablos were a way to share
Just last September, she began making her first
retablos, starting with her favorite saint: Joan of Arc. Before
painting, she does extensive research on the saint’s life.
pages and pages of their story. In order to paint
them, you have to really know them, because the retablo
tells a story in one image, like an icon,” she
The image of Joan of Arc, for example, is packed
with symbolism, depicting the flag that she carried into battle,
her coat of arms, and the names of the voices
that she heard (St Margaret, St Michael, St Catherine). She’s
holding her sword, and is flanked by angels representing the
Ann paints the original retablo with great care, and
then makes smaller print copies, which she then mounts on
a wooden plaque and sells online through www.art4thesoul.etsy.com. Unlike
the original retablos out West, each one comes with a
summarized history of the saint on the back side of
“The story of the saint is on the back
in the hope that whoever gets it will be drawn
into the holiness, qualities, and godliness of this person. My
|The archangel St Gabriel, the "Holy Messenger" who brought the message of the Annunciation to Our Lady.|
hope is that the devotion will spark more curiosity and
help people go further into the faith,” she said.
like inklings from the Holy Spirit: these are our human
role models that we have on this Earth.”
Finding Her Niche
out how to use one’s talents at the service of
the faith is often a trial-and-error process. In most cases,
we learn by doing, and it’s by correcting our mistakes
that we find the right way forward. For Ann, the
process was no different.
When she first started painting retablos,
she mimicked the style she saw out West, deliberately aiming
for the primitive art style of the original untrained artists.
But it didn’t go over very well on the East
“People didn’t get it,” she said, noting that some commented
that it looked like a kid had painted them. Ann
realized that the primitive retablo style, which fit so well
in the southwest’s culture of simple, heartfelt faith, did not
have the same resonance outside of its natural context.
she decided to adopt a more realistic style, one more
true to her own talents and inclinations as a trained
artist. Success followed almost immediately.
“People can relate better to the
|St Joseph, the "Righteous Man," with Jesus as a small child.|
images,” she said, noting that the new style is more
“As an artist, you don’t want to copy other
people’s work. You want to be comfortable in something that’s
your own and unique. I think I’ve found that. I
feel like I’ve found my niche.”
For Ann Burt, art is
a vehicle to express and share her faith with others.
But there is no limit the talents that Our Lord
has sprinkled among the members of his Church, no limit
to the many creative ways we can bring the faith
to life for other people.
“In the Father’s house, there
are many mansions”— and many ways to belong and serve.
And perhaps finding our niche in the mission begins with
just one question: “Lord, I have this talent that you
have given me. How can I use it to serve
Interested in retablo art? Visit Ann’s online store at www.art4thesoul.etsy.com.
For readers with artistic talents and inclinations, there is also
a Catholic artists’ guild with an online blogspot at www.catholicetsyartists.blogspot.com.