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Nichos are made from mixed media and traditionally combine elements from Roman Catholicism, mestizo spirituality, and popular culture. Characteristically "nicho" objects have different names throughout Central and South America: they may be called retablo or by other local names. Also see article on Peruvian Retablos, a style that encompasses several different portable forms not discussed here.
In South America, it is common to see decorative boxes called "nichos" set upon tables and pedestals to display religious icons. These boxes may serve as a religious altar (to mark a significant religious event) or to honor a patron saint.
Nicho art originated as a popular adaptation of the Roman Catholic retablo tradition of painting patron saints on wood or tin. Unlike the large, flat panels of retablo, nichos are small and built in shadow box style. Common structural conventions include hinged doors, carved borders, and multiple panels. Within the box there is a key object or central figure for whose honor or memory the nicho has been created. Nichos are usually painted with striking colors, often contrasting bright and dark, and tend towards garish. In addition to painted designs, nichos are decorated with all variety of images and objects from religious and popular culture, especially depictions of the Virgin Mary, saints, the sacred heart, figures from loteria, Dia de los Muertos characters and objects, and folk heroes.
Nichos are made of objects that can be easily purchased or scavenged in the home or community. The media are characteristically humble for a religious object, especially compared to the typically ornate icons of the Catholic Church. The shadow box itself is easily converted from a cigar box or other mass-produced wooden container, but can also be constructed from any lightweight wood, recycled tin, or glass. The colorful designs on the box and borders are created not only with paint, but also with sequins, glitter, chain, thread or rope, paper mache, and any small bric-a-brac. Other ornaments within nichos include milagro charms, beads, stones, nails, and other manufactured and found objects.
Thematically, traditional nichos are part or extensions of household altars, and depict patron saints, ancestors, or an ex-voto. They can act as shrines, protection, or devotional objects, and may be part of active religious practice. The most common central figure is the Virgin Mary, and in Central America especially the Virgin of Guadalupe. Contemporary nichos have expanded into more non-traditional subject matter, including the secular or the humorous, but continue to represent themes and figures in popular Latin American culture.
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