New Mexico State University holds the largest public collection of retablos religious images painted on tin plates in the United States. This art form flourished in Mexico during the nineteenth-century. Over a period of ten years, from 1963 to 1973, more than 1,700 retablos were donated to the university art department.
From the sixteenth-century on, paintings done by academic and non-academic artists were used by the Catholic Church as instructional materials of evangelization. In the nineteenth century, Mexico endured wars of independence and the industrialization of this new nation.
The political situation brought about the secularization of the Church and the industrialization introduced a new material: sheets of iron coated with a thin layer of tin, which were used by artists to promote their images of faith and belief. The new and powerful art of retablos was then popularized due to this materials durability, availability, low cost, and for its compatibility to commercial oil-based pigments attainable in assorted colors.
The retablo tradition of nineteenth-century Mexico documents the peoples glorification of God and search for divine favor. The themes are usually either images of veneration, including those of Christ, the Virgin Mary, the Holy Family, male and female saints as well as archangels, or votive images known as ex-votos. Those images were, and still are, found in the dwellings of the rich and poor in domestic shrines or displayed on walls of pilgrimage sites.