Retablo of La Mano Poderosa/The All Powerful Hand

A conversation between Dr. Emmanuel Ortega and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank about a retablo showing La Mano Poderosa, 19th century, paint on tin (New Mexico State University Art Museum, 9823)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:06] We’re looking at a painting from the New Mexico State University Art Museum. It’s a retablo painting, a small painting on tin. It’s showing a Christian subject, the All Powerful Hand.

[0:20] That is indicated by a large hand that is emerging from clouds, and it’s bleeding into a chalice, which is a type of vessel used during the Catholic liturgy. Surrounding the hand we have billowing clouds. In those clouds, we’re seeing five figures, one for each of the fingers, and these are the Holy Family. The center of them is Jesus Christ. There are seven lambs that are drinking this blood that’s coming out of the cup. We’re seeing a column to the left side with other instruments that look like spears. And then we have things like nails at the bottom.

Dr. Emmanuel Ortega: [0:57] And this type of paintings, for one reason or another, they’re not as studied as your typical paintings that you see in churches. These images were created more for the private realm, for altars in people’s homes.

[1:11] Retablos were common in smaller towns in central and northern Mexico, but also their production continued in the Southwest. These were not pieces that were created as part of an academy of art. They were created outside of small sanctuaries in places like Zacatecas, Guadalajara, and Guanajuato.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:33] While we don’t know exactly when this painting was made, in general, retablo paintings were made beginning in the 1820s, and then they stop about a century later. So we know it dates to the 19th century. And one of the ways that we know that is because of the tin.

Dr. Ortega: [1:49] These type of images go beyond ideas of beautiful art, or in this case, when in Latin America art is dominated by neoclassicism and Romantic ideas that are coming from Europe.

[2:00] Here you have a whole entire visual culture dedicated on devotion. People wanted to take their devotion from the sanctuaries to their homes. So using regular materials would have been much cheaper and more common to produce.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:14] It’s at this point that you have sheets of tin being mass produced to make roofing for people in parts of Mexico. Artists are using this commonly available material that wasn’t available earlier.

[2:26] Let’s talk about what we mean by people going to sanctuaries and how they would’ve brought back images related to that experience.

Dr. Ortega: [2:33] We have to think about how we will go to a place and buy a postcard, and we want to take a memory from that visit to that specific place. Something like that is happening here. Devotees will go to a church, perhaps dedicated to Los Cinco Señores or The Five Lords, which is another name that is given to the five figures that you see above the fingers.

[2:54] They will commission a specific artist in that town to create that piece. In many other occasions, you will have an artist that is mass producing these images. They will go to a kiosk outside of the sanctuary or inside of the workshop of this artist and take a piece of that religious experience with them.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:12] This type of painting would have been brought back home, placed on a home altar, would’ve been surrounded by other objects that would have aided an individual or a family in their private devotion.

[3:25] The painting would have been activated in a number of other ways as well, whether with candles, with singing, with other objects showing holy figures surrounding it. It wouldn’t have just been in isolation.

[3:35] We can actually see markers of how this object would have been handled. The blue orb underneath the figure of Jesus has scratches on it. We can see bits of paint or scratch marks that clearly demonstrate that this was physically handled by whoever owned it.

Dr. Ortega: [3:54] The most important element that we see in this painting is Los Cinco Señores.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:58] We see Jesus as a child, holding up his right hand in a gesture of blessing. He’s seated on clouds, but his feet rest on this blue orb that signifies the world.

[4:09] The lower half of the painting has iconographic elements and symbols that relate to his much later martyrdom when he’s an adult, what we call the Arma Christi, the instruments of Christ’s Passion; the column being an instrument of torture when he’s flagellated, and the spear is the one that pierces his side when he’s hanging on the cross.

Dr. Ortega: [4:30] One of the elements that people find the most attractive about this specific iconography is the little seven lambs that make an allusion to the seven sacraments of the Church.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:41] Even beyond that, the lambs are a broader symbol of Christian souls — the flock of Jesus, and Jesus is their shepherd.

[4:49] I want to talk more about the hand. Emerging from clouds at this sharp diagonal on the right-hand side of the painting, and right in the middle of the hand, we have a wound. It’s bleeding from that wound into the chalice, which is then spilling out from the chalice into the mouths of the lambs, giving us that allusion to the sacrament of the Eucharist.

Dr. Ortega: [5:08] It’s all about the transubstantiation.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:11] When the bread and the wine during Mass transubstantiate into the body and blood of Christ. The hand is not Christ. This is the hand of Saint Francis.

Dr. Ortega: [5:21] The sleeve is brown, and that is a reference of Saint Francis. This is yet another testament of how these type of images were so complicated.

[5:31] Saint Francis received the stigmata in the 1200s. He received the different wounds of Christ. After that event, there was an entire group of religious people that we know today as the Franciscans. They started establishing missions throughout the world, including what today is known as the Americas.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:50] Saint Francis becomes this alternative Christ, this “alter Christus.”

Dr. Ortega: [5:55] The fact that we have the hand of Saint Francis, it shows you that the artist that is creating these type of images has different sources. For the most part, when people talk about retablos, they talk about folk art, popular art. I will argue that we should look at these pieces a little bit beyond that.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [6:13] It really speaks to how even self-trained artists were keenly aware of the many different theological traditions and imagery that are all coming together in this complex painting.

[6:25] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Emmanuel Ortega, "Retablo of La Mano Poderosa/The All Powerful Hand," in Smarthistory, February 15, 2022, accessed May 24, 2024,