Retablos Explained

You can tell a lot about colonial-era churches by their retablos, altarpieces that are almost always massive in scale and over-the-top in ornamentation. Most are made of elaborately carved wood and coated with layer upon layer of gold leaf. Indigenous peoples frequently did the carving, so look for unusual elements such as symbols of the sun and moon that figure prominently in pre-Columbian religion. You may be surprised that Jesus is a minor player on many retablos, and on others he doesn't appear at all. That's because these retablos often depict the life of the saint for which the church is named. Many churches retain their original baroque altarpieces, but others saw theirs replaced by much simpler neoclassical ones with sober columns and spare design. If you wander around the church, you may find the original relegated to one of the side chapels.

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