The term retablo traditionally applies to a broad variety of religious images which are painted and sculpted over much of Latin America. The word is derived from the Latin retro tabula, which means behind the (altar) table, where devotional images were typically placed. In Mexico, New Mexico and Guatemala retablo (or strictly speaking, retablo santo) has taken the form of images of Christ, the virgin, or the saints, painted on tin or wood. Carved and painted wood sculptures of saints and religious figures set in shallow boxes are generally referred to as nichos in this area.
The Peruvian retablo is, in a sense, a blend of the two forms. Figures of individual saints may be carved or sculpted of a mix of plaster and cooked potato and set in a shadow box, like a nicho. But frequently, as in the pieces shown here, they take the form of a three dimensional painting of a scene, consisting of many figures in very complex environments. The boxes form miniature houses or shrines, often with opening doors and a gable above the opening. Typically both the doors and the sides of the box are covered with an ornate, polychrome floral decoration. The Peruvian retablos traditionally serve as household shrines, which combine folk and Christian tradiions. The art form has evolved to include the depiction of secular scenes of daily life in Peru, such as markets, shops, harvests, weddings and other ceremonies. In some cases the subject matter may even be political, depicting the turmoil of the last few years.