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    Painted miracles


    Idols behind altars. --  New York : Dover Publications, 2002.
    p. 157 - 170 : ill.
    Book/pamphlet article – Essays
    Brenner, Anita. "Painted miracles." In Idols Behind Altars, 157-170. New York : Dover Publications, 2002.

In “Painted Miracles,” Mexican writer Anita Brenner examines the Mexican tradition of offering milagro paintings, or ex-votos, to the saints or to God as thanks for a miracle. Brenner explains that although the offering of milagro paintings was introduced to Mexico by the Spaniards, the Mexican versions vary significantly from their originators. She reports that in Mexico, the miraculous is not exceptional, but part of the everyday. Indigenous Mexican cultures encompassed a tradition of the appreciation of marvels, and the inducement of supernatural experiences through the use of pulque and other intoxicants. Milagro paintings were embraced by Mexicans to give thanks for everyday miracles that would not have been officially recognized by the church. These paintings were offered by both rich and poor, and were often commissioned from professional milagro painters. Brenner describes various examples of these commonplace miracles, such as the case of a thief who collected funds for a mass so that every person whom he attacked would afterwards see him accompanied by a pack of guardian angels. In another case, a painted Virgin is found to have left her painting every night to support the floodgate of a nearby lake. Brenner also explains the conventions of milagro paintings, which are often painted on pieces of tin in a visual language that includes repeated tropes and themes. These paintings are intended to illustrate the miraculous event, and to convince the viewer of its veracity. Brenner contends that milagros are a truly Mexican phenomenon, representing the tendency of the Mexican people to understand the commonplace as miraculous, and the miraculous as commonplace.


Anita Brenner (1905–1974) was born in Aguascalientes, Mexico, to a father who was a Latvian immigrant. In 1916, Brenner and her family moved to San Antonio, Texas, during the Mexican revolution. After attending Columbia University in 1927, she went on to become an author of books on Mexican history and art, and books for children. She remained in New York for seventeen years until she returned to Mexico in 1944. Her most influential works were the anthropological and art historical study Idols Behind Altars, and The Wind that Swept Mexico, an English-language account of the Mexican Revolution that expressed Brenner’s sympathy for the Mexican revolutionary cause. Brenner also wrote a column of art criticism for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle called “A Mind of One’s Own.” In 1930, Brenner received a Guggenheim Fellowship for “Fine Arts Research,” and during this period she also wrote about the Mexican muralists, Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, popularizing their work in the United States. She established the publication Mexico/This Month in 1955. “Painted Miracles” is a chapter in Brenner’s Idols Behind Altars, a historical study of Mexican art that analyzes Mexican artistic production from the Pre-Columbian period to the Mexican muralism movement. “Painted Miracles” examines the adaptation of a European artistic tradition to the culture and norms of Mexico.

Molly Moog
International Center for the Arts of the Americas, MFAH, Houston, USA
Courtesy © 2012 Anita Brenner Estate.
Courtesy of co-owner Anita Brenner Estate, Fort Bragg, CA