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Retablos
Retablos

Hotline to Heaven

Catalogue Essay

Pip McManus
As a small child I loved to save the little plastic columns used to hold up the tiers of wedding cakes. Atop these miniature pillars I would arrange my prized collection of luminous Virgin Marys and the Crucified Christ. They glowed at me in the night from behind gilded gates and porticos. Familiar yet mysterious these heavenly companions (and let's not forget here my personal Guardian Angel) watched over me through the long hours of darkness. I also had a fine stack of Holy Cards featuring the death-defying exploits of a pantheon of Saints. It was that limitless realm of tortured but triumphant Sainthood, along with a cornucopia of bad art to illustrate the tale, that I fell in love with.

Some years later as a teenager I visited the great eighth century Omayyad Mosque in Damascus and was amazed to find, in the inner sanctuary, a shrine dedicated to St John the Baptist. An intricate silver reliquary encased the Saint's forearm, a small window revealing the crusty sinews within. Yet this somewhat gruesome relic was revered by Muslims and Christians alike. The churches and monasteries of the Middle Ages housed veritable treasure troves of holy relics in a fiercely competitive "tourist" market designed to lure the vast numbers of fanatical pilgrims. The fact that many of these putative relics (phials of Virgin milk, fragments of the Good Lady's girdle, bone splinters, nail parings etc) were fakes only serves to emphasise the primary impulse at play here - namely access to the Almighty via the intercession of a virtuous mortal whose credentials were beyond reproach.

While elaborate reliquaries encrusted with precious jewels and narrative scenes in cloisonné enamel remain a focus for contemporary European pilgrims, devotional paintings in Mexico known as retablos santos are used in household altars in the belief that a Saint should be seen to be venerated. The sanctuaries of especially revered Saints are still adorned with these small paintings which depict miracles and give thanks to the Saint in question. Diego Rivera was among the first to recognise these endearing narratives as real folk art and was a dedicated collector of retablos.

Within this icon-charged phantasmagoria it is difficult to disentangle superstition from belief. In a world where miracles are embraced as a matter of fact, distinguishing between faith and fiction is considered poor taste. Australia these days, by contrast, is light on when it comes to miracles and holy sites. In this secular world saintly role models have been superseded by celebrities who appear to inhabit a realm unattainable by we mere mortals. That's all very well, but Princess Di and Kylie haven't got a hotline to heaven when the chips are down, unlike the honest-to-God Saints celebrated here.

The enamel medallions which adorn these works have been garnered over two decades of dedicated searching. I first took notice of that quintessential tourist collectable - the souvenir spoon - on arrival in Alice Springs in the early eighties. Little did I realise then that these few enamelled remnants represented the swansong of a dying art form fast being supplanted by vulgar (e)poxy bubbled imitations unsuitable even for stirring one's cuppa. Already the design artists and colouring teams had downed their tools, the metallic pattern presses and enamelling kilns had fallen silent.

As for the beatific stories told in these retablos, these are not, as some might suggest, concocted nonsense but rather divine parables revealed from above. And, as it happens, these sudden revelations seem most often to be visited upon me during those excited reveries induced by the arrival of a fresh bundle of enamel spoons.

If the harsh realities of pragmatism deny us the idealised scenarios we desire, then Saints (or superstars) offer a world of hope and transcendence (or just desperately sought after diversion). Who among us has not at some time engaged in private plea bargaining with someone up above? Dream on, you may say. But why not indulge a little in the childlike rituals of celestial succour?