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 “To get an insight into an aspect of human nature, either personal or collective, it is necessary to count on history”   (Ortega y Gasset)                                       



Martín Carlos Palomo García



Ceramic in altarpieces
The splendour of the ceramic altarpiece
Morphology and structure of a ceramic altarpiece
Topics represented in religious ceramic altarpieces
Historiographic value of the ceramic altarpiece



According to the dictionary, an altarpiece is “an architectural work, made of stone, wood, or any other material, that makes up the decoration of an altar”. This definition is rather general, but helps us to focus on the main contents of this website. Altarpieces are similar to altars, which usually are located within sacred buildings, such as churches, monasteries, and chapels. But throughout history there was a moment when the altarpieces began to be displayed in the outer walls of religious buildings, as a mean of propagating Faith and regarding as sacred a public space. In the case of Spain, and more specifically Andalucia, since the XVI century, villages and cities were decorated by crosses, “triumphs”, and wooden altarpieces, painted of with sculptures. That was one of the responses of the Catholic Church to the Reformation, to spread the doctrine derived from the Council of Trento.


At least since the XVIII century these works were named “retablos”, either having richly carved ornaments or being made up of a flat board. Their origin is purely religious but the aesthetic and ornamental aspects are going to play a key role, since that is how the people that go to worship the mystery, image, or biblical passage represented in the altarpiece, feel it. Even some brotherhoods, the so-called “hermandades de retablo”, founded around specific altarpieces, would honour them by carrying out liturgical ceremonies and religious parades.

The XIX century is particularly adverse to this deeply rooted manifestation of popular religiousness. By the middle of that century the altarpieces must be retired due to urban developments and the seizure of ecclesiastical properties. Later, by 1868-69, as a consequence of a series of events adverse to the Church, all religious symbols displayed in the streets were ordered to be retired to the interior of temples or religious buildings. Similarly, the religious brotherhoods reduce their activities during the XIX century, some of them even disappearing.

During the first decades of the XX century the trend is the opposite. The brotherhoods recover themselves and proliferate, and the State strongly supports the principles and manifestations of the Catholic Church. From that splendour derived the flowering of the brotherhoods during the second half of the XX century, and their continuity to date due to their religious, cultural, and artistic significance, despite some critics try to push to the background the religious feeling highlighting only aesthetic and folkloric values.



Ceramic in altarpieces

At this point, we need to go back to the millenarian tradition of pottery and ceramics in our homeland. Since far-off times their inhabitants used clay to produce utensils for household use. Later, other peoples that came to Andalucia used ceramics for decoration, like the Arabs, which brought their cultural knowledge from the Near East and introduced the colour, the geometric tiling, the refinement of techniques, and the use of kilns.

However, a key factor to the production of ceramic pieces was introduced only by the end of the XV century, when the Genoese artist Francisco Niculoso Pisano, attracted by the prospects of wealth after the discovery of the New World, came to Sevilla. In the potteries of Triana, the most important of Sevilla, he dared to paint a set of “blank” tiles, not fired yet, as if he were painting a canvas in oils. He applied glazes of different colours to depict a given scene, which, after being fired in the kiln, provided a new way of artistic expression that could be used to decorate a building with religious or profane motifs. We can assert that the ceramic altarpiece was born in this area of Southern Spain. The first known work of Niculoso Pisano is the sepulchral laudatory plaque of Iñigo López in the church of Santa Ana, in Triana (1503), and the altarpiece representing the “Visitation of Our Lady” in the Reales Alcázares of Sevilla (1504).


Immediately, this new technique of painting the tiles spread to other production centres across Spain. Firstly to Talavera and later to the Eastern provinces, Cataluña and Aragón, where the ceramic art developed in particular ways. But it was in Sevilla and its environs where the phenomenon of the ceramic altarpiece would acquire particular nuances. Its growth during the XVI, XVII and XVIII centuries is parallel to the laying of public altarpieces made of other materials. In the XIX century, as mentioned above, there was a contraction in the number of public altarpieces and in the activity of potteries. Apart from some exceptions, this was a period of decline that lasted for the second half of the century.

But nothing goes on for ever, and thanks to the eminent scholar from Sevilla, Mr. José Gestoso y Pérez, the ceramics from Triana rose from the ashes and, with the effort of industrialists and craftsmen, recovered the preeminent position that should never have been lost. At the dawn of the XX century, factories and workshops proliferate by the meadow of Triana, producing decorative and religious pieces destined for Andalucia and Spain, and also for South America. Those were the years previous to the Latin American Exhibition of 1929, an event that triggers the construction of new buildings as the city gets ready to make a good impression upon the thousands of visitors expected.




The splendour of the ceramic altarpiece

Linking the previous to the resurgence during the XX century of the activity of the brotherhoods, not only in Sevilla but in Andalucia, gives us the keys of the artistic and religious phenomenon of the ceramic altarpiece. These pieces, laid by brotherhoods in most of the occasions, spread to all cities and villages, and were displayed not only in religious buildings, but in the street, in public and private properties, and even stores, a phenomenon described by the professor Palomero Páramo as “ciudad cofradía” (brotherhood-city).

The ceramic is the preferred material for altarpieces, due to its matchless features: resistance to the elements, durability of the colours, low maintenance, easy cleaning, and variety of decorative resources.

There is a crucial difference between the religious ceramic altarpiece of the XX century and those of previous periods. In the first case, the image is a faithful copy of the sculpture or painting worshipped in the interior of the church where the altarpiece is displayed. The quality of the altarpiece is given by this faithfulness, which can be achieved only when a clear and precise model of the image is available. That is only possible with a good photography, an advance of the XX century.

The religious ceramic altarpiece is used to remind the passers-by the represented image, when the church is closed, it regards as sacred a public space, and in most of the cases is placed on top of an alms box were the contributions to the expenses of the brotherhood are collected. In other cases, a ceramic altarpiece can be decorated temporarily during a celebration of the brotherhood. In the past, when due to diverse reasons the brotherhoods decided not to parade during Easter, the altarpieces became the centre of attention of the faithful assembled around.

In other cases, the ceramic altarpieces are located in emblematic spots for a brotherhood, or in the premises of related institutions to mark the anniversaries of its foundation. The blessing act of those pieces are conducted with great solemnity, presided by the top authorities, and accompanied with bands of drums and trumpets.

By the end of the sixties the new industrialized society threatened to ruin the traditional ceramic crafts, displaced by the mass-produced tiles. The death of the elder ceramicists implied the loss of many of the secrets of their trade, but by the mid eighties the art resurged again with the creation of new altarpieces and the appearance of several artists, autodidact but also having academic background, something that brings good prospects for the future of this art. Currently, a significant amount of brand new altarpieces are being displayed in our cities and villages.




Morphology and structure of a ceramic altarpiece

The simplest altarpieces consist of a set of twelve tiles (although there are sets of three or even one single piece) framed by an edge, and can be found in many private properties. The most complex, usually displayed in the walls of churches, are big-sized structures with moulded figures or even sculptures, and are roofed and lit.

With regard to the pictorial technique, the most common is the polychrome painting of flat tiles using the turpentine method, although the technique known as “cuerda seca” (“dry rope”) can often be found. Edged tiles have been used on a very few occasions.

The predominant shape is the vertical rectangle, although there are examples of horizontal rectangles, round, irregular outlines, or ending in a round arch. Some have a frame designed to highlight the niche that contains the image. Those frames may be made of ceramic pieces, carved bricks, plaster moulding, concrete, or metal. In any case, baroque is the most common artistic style.

As mentioned above, the biggest altarpieces are often roofed with a gabled shelter made of coloured tiles. The lighting consists of lanterns hanging from the shelter or built onto the wall, or candles.

In some cases there is a floral ornament, to the detriment of the faithful, added by the neighbours.

Lately we have witnessed, regrettably, vandalistic aggressions to this type of religious works, and therefore some are protected with security measures to avoid these situations.



Topics represented in religious ceramic altarpieces

Due to the diversity of images and topics displayed in the altarpieces shown in this website, it is convenient to categorize them in order to make easier its analysis and understanding.

1.- Altarpieces of Jesus.
About the birth and childhood of Jesús.
Sacramental or Eucharistic.
About the Passion and death of Jesus.
About the Resurrection.
Other representations (Sacred Herat, Holy Trinity).
2.- Altarpieces of the Virgin Mary.
About the life of Mary (the Annunciation, the Assumption, the Blessed Virgin).
The Virgin Mary with Baby Jesus.
Glorious or happy Mary, alone or accompanied.
Sorrowful Mary, alone or accompanied with characters from the Gospel.
Other representations of Mary (Blessed Heart).
3.- 3.- Hagiographic altarpieces (biographies of the saints).
Dedicated to saints.
Dedicated to blessed people.
4.- Altarpieces of blessed souls in the Purgatory.
Only souls.
With the so-called “triumphant” or “interceding” images.
5.- Mixed altarpieces.
With Jesus and the Virgin alone.
With Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and other biblical figures.
With Jesus and/or the Virgin Mary interceding for the souls of the Purgatory.
Jesus and/or the Virgin Mary with saints or blessed people.
6.- Altarpieces dedicated to the Holy Cross.
7.- Allegorical altarpieces.
Theological virtues.




Historiographic value of the ceramic altarpiece

There are some altarpieces that, apart from the inherent artistic value related to its particular author or factory of origin, are living testimonies of the history of the brotherhood they belong to. In some occasions, that is because the image represented is no longer the patron of the brotherhood, due to the replacement of the figure. In others, because the image has been relocated, after being there for centuries, to another place.

Sometimes by observing the clothes depicted in the image, especially those representing the Virgin, we are taken back to other periods, when they were attired in different ways or even with garments (cloaks, skirts, circlets, etc.) or “preseas” (crowns, daggers, etc.) that do not belong any more to the brotherhood. Even the heraldry represented in the altarpieces, especially the coat of arms, has changed in time. Also, the background may be either idealized landscapes or related to the image. Thanks to this variety of nuances and singularities, each altarpiece is a unique and unrepeatable work that attracts our attention, and therefore deserves analysis and diffusion through this website.

We want to give our regards to those people, the ceramicists, which for centuries perpetuated their trade generation after generation, and bequeathed to us an artistic and religious heritage characteristic of our homeland: “a noble and dashing trade, the first among all, since God was the first potter, and Man was the first pot”.

The author of this brief note about the history of the ceramic altarpiece has been studying the religious ceramics of Sevilla since 1985, writing several articles about this field, as well as biographies of ceramicists, which have been published mainly in the “Boletín de las Cofradías de Sevilla” (Bulletin of the Brotherhoods of Sevilla), brotherhood’s bulletins, the “Revista de Triana” (Triana Magazine), and specialized monographs.



Carrasco Bernal, Antonio. Antonio Kiernam Flores, su obra y Triana. Sevilla, 2002.


Fernández de Paz, Eva. Religiosidad popular sevillana a través de los retablos de culto callejero. Sevilla, 1987.


Gestoso y Pérez , José. Historia de los barros vidriados  sevillanos. Sevilla, 1903.


Palomo García, Martín Carlos. La Cerámica y las Cofradías de Sevilla, trabajo inédito (Sevilla,1985-2007)


Palomero Páramo, Jesús. Sevilla, ciudad de retablos. Sevilla, 1987.


Pleguezuelo Hernández, Alfonso. Capítulo de Cerámica de Triana en tomo XLII de Summa Artis, Cerámica Española (varios autores). Madrid, 1997.


Pleguezuelo Hernández, Alfonso. Cerámica, arte y devoción. Catálogo Colección Carranza. Daimiel, 1995.


Vallecillo Martínez, Francisco. El Retablo cerámico del siglo XX. Tesis doctoral. Sevilla, 1994

Martín Carlos Palomo García. Junio 2007

Traducción de Ignacio Hidalgo González.