Retabla of the Trinity, ca. 1936, Watercolor Copy of an Altarpiece, E. (Elizabeth) Boyd, 1903-1974

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Related post B Trinity Sunday (Pentecost 1), Art for June 3, 2012

When some forms of creative work became valued more than others the concept of art was established and a hierarchy of categories came into being. Painting and sculpture now are called “high arts” and often the crafts and decorative arts are relegated collectively to the category “minor arts.” Today, other creative works are acknowledged only rarely by the art establishment. Folk, naïve, outsider, and visionary are terms used to describe various art forms that are seldom displayed in galleries or museums except for an occasional special exhibition. These works are made typically by people who have had no formal training in art and lack technical sophistication. It is an art that often fulfills personal needs and at times is the result of emotions related to religious beliefs.

During The Great Depression of the 1930s, millions of Americans were out of work but opportunities for jobs in public works projects were made available under the Work Progress Administration (WPA). Among these workers were artists who were employed to paint murals in Post Offices, transportation stations and public buildings. Artists, writers, and photographers also were employed to document our American cultural heritage. [Dorothea Lange’s well known and stirring photographic images now give us a sense of the hardships of migrant workers during the Great Depression.]

One of the artists working for the Federal Arts Project during this era was Elizabeth Boyd. She was enamored by the Southwest after a childhood visit and following the study of art in Paris as a young adult she returned to seek work in New Mexico. The coming of the Depression led her to a government sponsored project that documented a form of folk art called, retablos which were found in churches throughout New Mexico. Retablo is the Spanish term for a shelf behind the altar on which objects are placed; hence, small paintings displayed on it are known as “retablos.” In the Episcopal Church the term for this shelf (on altars placed against a wall) is retable and sometimes candles or flowers are placed there.

When churches were established by Franciscan monks in the American Southwest, materials were in short supply. There was a shortage of art supplies as well and the images that were created tended to be small and personal. Wood was used for painting surfaces and pigments were derived locally from whatever natural sources were available. In subject matter, they represented usually Christ, the Virgin Mary, or one of the many saints. Boyd travelled to churches in remote villages and often her work was in adverse conditions as she drew the retablos and then remained as true as possible to the originals when she painted them with watercolors. With the aid of two assistants, woodblock prints were made of her work and published as New Mexico’s contribution to the Index of American Design.

The Retabla of the Trinity differs from familiar depictions of the Father, Son, and dove representing the Holy Spirit. Instead, the Trinty image rendered by Boyd is of Byzantine origin and is based on an account in Genesis (18:2) that told of three men coming to Abraham. Early portrayals included Abraham as well but later only the three men were pictured. The depiction of the Trinity in this form was carried over into European art but after an edict by the pope in the eighteenth century it was no longer used. It remained in use, however, in the American Southwest and in other parts of the Americas that were settled by Spain.

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© 2012 Hovak Najarian

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