Retablo of Unknown Votary (1954), oil on metal. Massey-Fiske Collection (images courtesy of the Princeton University Museum of Art)

PRINCETON, New Jersey — Each painting in Miracles on the Border: Retablos of Mexican Migrants to the United States, on view at the Princeton University Art Museum through July 7, is about the size of a small notebook. While the renderings are simplistic and colors are those often found in house paint, these images of heavenly figures in blue robes and stories of miracles tug at your heart.

From the Massey-Fiske and Arias-Durand collections, these retablos — mostly from the mid-20th century — tell stories of people crossing the border; the retablos are their gifts of gratitude. In Mexico, retablos — from the Latin retro-tabula or “behind the altar” — have traditionally been placed, as votive offerings, in home altars, shrines, or churches in gratitude for divine protection, and are meant for public viewing. They were usually produced by anonymous artists but signed and dated by the supplicant. Tin was the traditional means of support, although wood, cardboard, plastic, license plates, condensed milk cans, and other scrap materials have also served as substrates.

Installation view of Miracles on the Border: Retablos of Mexican Migrants to the United States, Princeton University Museum of Art

An individual seeking to fulfill a vow to a holy figure would approach an artist with expertise in creating retablos and describe his or her experience, be it healing or thanks for, say, the return of a son from America or prison or surgery. The artist would illustrate the scene and describe it in words on the icon. Most artists are untrained, and occasionally a supplicant will paint his or her own. Sometimes, the artists do sign their names, and include phone numbers and addresses to drum up business.

Retablos have their roots in the Catholic churches of Spain from the 12th century on. The faithful prayed to these altar sculptures or paintings of saints for intercession: for example, in healing, protection from danger, or influence over the course of events. These large retablos were replicated on a smaller scale in Mexican churches. There are two types: Santos (images of saints), which were reproduced for home devotion; and ex-votos, made in gratitude for a saint’s protection and donated to the church. The Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos is a distinctly Mexican manifestation of the Virgin Mary, invariably clad in a blue robe. She is frequently invoked for help by Mexican migrants to the US.

Retablo of Juan Jose Sánches (ca. 1990), oil on metal. Arias-Durand Collection.

Diego Rivera called retablos the “one true and present pictorial expression of the Mexican people.” He and Frida Kahlo collected them, and she borrowed the votive features and compositions in such works as “Henry Ford Hospital,” an autobiographical painting that shows her giving birth to a stillborn.

Retablos became popular with collectors in the mid 20th-century. Those in Miracles on the Border were collected by Douglas S. Massey, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University, and Jorge Durand, a professor of anthropology at the University of Guadalajara, Mexico. Massey and Durand are co-directors of the Mexican Migration Project, sponsored by Princeton University and the University of Guadalajara. Created in 1982, the project collects data to track patterns in the characteristics and behavior of documented and undocumented Mexican migrants to the United States and records how they change over time. “These retablos are the more ethnographic side of our studies,” Durand noted in an exhibition-related presentation. “We wanted to tell the story from the migrant’s point of view and this was a good way.”

Installation view of Miracles on the Border: Retablos of Mexican Migrants to the United States, Princeton University Museum of Art

A photo shows how these retablos would be hung in a church, strung from pegs on a wall, fitting in as many as possible, with rosary beads and jewels filling the spaces in between. Over time, older retablos must be removed to make room for new ones. Some churches store and archive them, some sell them, and others leave them for the taking. It should be noted that those in the Massey-Durand collection were purchased from galleries and antiques dealers. Many still have their strings intact, and some have their edges taped.

It is generally when every worldly possibility has been explored, to no avail, that one seeks intercession from otherworldly spirits. In one example, a grandmother gives thanks to the Virgin for restoring health to her grandson. A boy lays in a hospital bed while a man in a suit watches over him. Suspended above an ethereal levitating female figure are two cherubs with wings. A black-and-white photo-booth-style shot of the grandson has been nailed onto the painting.

Retablo of Venancio Soriano (mid-20th century), oil on metal. Arias-Durand Collection.

Some scenes include buildings, trains, trucks, and mountains, all signifying a prayer of help or thanks. A hospital bed with a figure tucked under white sheets is a common motif. Another common prayer is for children who have gone abroad; the parents call upon the deity for illumination of the road ahead, both literally and figuratively.

The Miraculous Lady of San Juan saves men who are mistaken for bandits; those for whom medical professionals have given up hope; those returning from war; those suffering from “bad cramps”; those who are in debt financially; those seeking work or securing insurance checks; or those suffering from hepatitis or cancer. “These are just regular people making a difficult journey to earn money to take care of their families,” said Massey. “They endure incredible risks and are grateful to have the chance to go home.”

Retablo of Concepción Zapata (1948), oil on metal. Arias-Durand Collection.

Miracles on the Border: Retablos of Mexican Migrants to the United States continues at Princeton University Art Museum (Elm Drive, Princeton, New Jersey) through July 7.

A writer, artist, and filmmaker, Ilene Dube has written for Philadelphia Public Media, Sculpture magazine, and many others. She is the curator of Dreaming of Utopia: Roosevelt, New Jersey. Born in Brooklyn,...