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The Vivid Violence and Divine Healing of Ex-Voto Paintings

The ex-voto painting is a Catholic folk art tradition depicting individual misfortunes that were mollified by divine intervention.

Ex voto oil painting for a man who was hit on the head with a falling flower pot in Rome (1890) (via Wellcome Images/Wikimedia)
Ex-voto oil painting for a man who was hit on the head by a falling flower pot in Rome (1890) (via Wellcome Images/Wikimedia)

The ex-voto painting is a tradition of folk art that acts as a tribute to divine intervention in personal calamities, as well as an inadvertent catalogue of human misfortune. The artworks cover everything from quotidian accidents, like a flower pot tumbling onto a well-dressed man’s head in 1890 Rome, to more shocking tragedies, such as a woman stabbed in her bed in 1934 Guadalajara, Mexico, and were commissioned as a sign of religious thanks.

While attached to the popular practice of Catholicism, ex-voto paintings developed from the votive ritual, which dates back to the ancient pagan beliefs of Rome, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. For instance, Egyptian archaeology has taught us about the act of leaving of animal mummies at sacred shrines, along with the fact that frequently these mummies were just animal shaped, containing nothing but rocks. Like the ex-voto paintings, they were personal petitions to the supernatural.

The “ex-voto” — Latin for, roughly, “from the vow” — isn’t always a painting. In the small Saint Roch Chapel in New Orleans, plaster limbs and hearts have accumulated as signs of healing prayers answered. At Saint Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, symbolic crutches and canes are stacked to the ceiling, left by individuals in gratitude for cures. The walls of the Basilique Notre-Dame-des-Victoires in Paris are covered with the repeating word “merci,” or “thanks,” on tablets. The ex-voto paintings are different, however, in being narrative, each telling a completely unique tale of woe.

Ex voto from 1882 for a woman's fall from a ladder (via Bayerisches Nationalmuseum/Wikimedia)
German ex-voto for a woman’s fall from a ladder (1882) (via Bayerisches Nationalmuseum/Wikimedia)

According to Michael P. Carroll’s Madonnas That Maim: Popular Catholicism in Italy Since the Fifteenth Century, the practice of installing ex-voto art in Catholic sanctuaries likely began in Italy, gaining prominence in the 16th century and then spreading around Europe. The ex-voto traveled with French colonists to Canada and with Spanish colonists to Mexico. Gloria Fraser Giffords writes in Mexican Folk Retablos that in “the colonial epoch and until the end of the eighteenth century the offering of votive pictures was almost wholly confined to the wealthy.” Following Mexican independence from Spain, “the common man adopted the ex-voto for his own.”

In 19th-century Mexico, the content of ex-votos stayed the same — a depiction of the accident, illness, or misfortune in question, along with the intervening saint or other heavenly presence — but the materials changed. There were fewer canvases and more works on tin. Rather than meticulous, idealized scenes, ex-votos became theatrical and free-form, often created by self-taught artists. By the 20th century, contemporary artists were drawn to this dramatic folk art. Alexxa Gotthardt at Artsy recently described how Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo collected Mexican votive paintings, many of which are now on view in the Museo Frida Kahlo in Mexico City. Kahlo owned over 400 ex-voto paintings, and one of a woman who survived being stabbed in bed is said to have inspired her bloody 1935 “A Few Small Nips.”

Ex voto to the Virgin of Talpa that appears to show a person being stabbed, in thanks for survival (1934). It's believed that Frida Kahlo was inspired by it for her work "A Few Small Nips" (via Museo Frida Kahlo/Wikimedia)
A 1934 ex-voto from Guadalajara, Mexico, that appears to show a person being stabbed and is dedicated to the Virgin of Talpa in thanks for survival. It’s believed to have inspired Frida Kahlo’s work “A Few Small Nips.” (via Museo Frida Kahlo/Wikimedia)

Ex-votos are also a record of centuries of disease and historic treatments, a subject that the US National Library of Medicine explores in an online exhibition of medical imagery. Claire Voon wrote for Hyperallergic about an 18th-century ex-voto at the Davis Museum of Wellesley College which is one of the earliest depictions of a mastectomy. The diminutive, detailed artwork that shows blood spewing from a serene patient was once owned by Surrealist André Breton.

Today, the tradition has mostly been replaced by mass-produced, symbolically shaped milagros and photographs, yet it does endure. Barry Nemett wrote an essay for Hyperallergic on visiting the Santuario della Madonna dei Bagni in Casalina, Italy, where hundreds of painted tiles dating from 1657 to the present represent everything from demonic possession to concentration-camp internment. Below, you can see international examples of ex-voto paintings from across the centuries. They capture falls from ladders, gun accidents, animal attacks, car crashes, fires, and avalanches, each with the Virgin Mary or another spiritual force emerging on the scene like a divine superhero to save the day.

Ex voto from lower Bavaria to Mary for the protection of geese (1839) (via Germanisches Nationalmuseum/Wikimedia)
Ex-voto to Mary for the protection of geese, from Lower Bavaria (1839) (via Germanisches Nationalmuseum/Wikimedia)
Votive tablets in the Church of Santa Marie de Bagni, Deruta, Italy (via Wellcome Images/Wikimedia)
Votive tablets in the Church of Santa Marie de Bagni, Deruta, Italy (via Wellcome Images/Wikimedia)
Votive paintings and offerrings on the walls at the back of the chapel at Gnadenkapelle, Altötting, Bavaria, Germany (photo by Mattana/Wikimedia)
Votive paintings and offerings on the walls at the back of the chapel at Gnadenkapelle, Altötting, Bavaria, Germany (photo by Mattana/Wikimedia)
Ex voto paintings at the Sanctuary of Chalma in Chalma, Malinalco, Mexico (2009) (photo by Thelmadatter/Wikimedia)
Ex-voto paintings in the Sanctuary of Chalma in Chalma, Malinalco, Mexico (2009) (photo by Thelmadatter/Wikimedia)
Ex voto oil on copper foil painting to Lord Saint Joseph from a man who was imprisoned (1924) (via Museo Frida Kahol/Wikimedia)
Ex-voto oil on copper foil painting to Lord Saint Joseph from a Mexican man who was imprisoned (1924) (via Museo Frida Kahlo/Wikimedia)
Ex voto in thanks for surviving surgery from the 1960s in the Sanctuary of Chalma in Chalma, Malinalco, Mexico (photo by Thelmadatter/Wikimedia)
Ex-voto in thanks for surviving surgery in the Sanctuary of Chalma in Chalma, Malinalco, Mexico (1960s) (photo by Thelmadatter/Wikimedia)
Votive painting for surviving a car wreck at the Sanctuary of Chalma in Chalma, Malinalco, Mexico (photo by Thelmadatter/Wikimedia)
Votive painting for surviving a car wreck at the Sanctuary of Chalma in Chalma, Malinalco, Mexico (photo by Thelmadatter/Wikimedia)
Votive offering from 1865 dedicated to the Lord of the Encino (via Museo Frida Kahlo/Wikimedia)
Votive offering to the Lord of the Encino (1865) (via Museo Frida Kahlo/Wikimedia)
Ex-voto oil painting of a boy that fell under the wheel of an ox cart (via Wellcome Library)
Ex-voto oil painting of a boy who fell under the wheel of an ox cart. P. G. R. stands for “Per Grazia Ricevuta,” or “For Grace Received.” (via Wellcome Library)
Ex voto for a lighting strike (photo by Andrés Marín Jarque, via Museu Valencià d'Etnologia/Wikimedia)
Ex-voto for a lighting strike (1957) (photo by Andrés Marín Jarque, via Museu Valencià d’Etnologia/Wikimedia)
An ex voto painted by B. Pistoni of a patient with her two attendants and a physician (1872) (via Wellcome Library)
Ex-voto painted by B. Pistoni of a patient with her two attendants and a physician (1872) (via Wellcome Library)
Ex voto from 1817 for an avalanche in Austria (via Vorarlberg Museum/Wikimedia)
Ex-voto for surviving an avalanche in Austria (1817) (via Vorarlberg Museum/Wikimedia)
Votive offering from 1886 dedicated to Our Lady of Solitude (via Museo Frida Kahlo/Wikimedia)
Votive offering dedicated to Our Lady of Solitude (1886) (via Museo Frida Kahlo/Wikimedia)
Votive offering from 1928 dedicated to the Three Wisdom Kings (via Museo Frida Kahlo/Wikimedia)
Votive offering dedicated to the Three Wisdom Kings (1928) (via Museo Frida Kahlo/Wikimedia)
Ex-voto painting of two women attending a man in bed and appealing to Sansovino's Virgin and Child (Italy, 1888) (via Wellcome Library)
Italian ex-voto painting of two women attending to a man in bed and appealing to Sansovino’s Virgin and Child (1888) (via Wellcome Library)
Mexican ex voto oil on copper painting to San Nicolás de Tolentino depicting a carriage accident (1936) (via Museo Frida Kahlo/Wikimedia)
Mexican ex-voto oil on copper painting to San Nicolás de Tolentino depicting a carriage accident (1936) (via Museo Frida Kahlo/Wikimedia)
Ex voto on wood for a gun accident in Santa Maria in Portuno, Italy (1892) (via Giuseppe.lepore4/Wikimedia)
Ex-voto on wood for a gun accident in Santa Maria in Portuno, Italy (1892) (via Giuseppe.lepore4/Wikimedia)
Mexican ex voto oil on copper foil painting dedicated to the Lord of Mercy from a woman injured by an animal (1876) (via Museo Frida Kahlo/Wikimedia)
Mexican ex-voto oil on copper foil painting dedicated to the Lord of Mercy from a woman injured by an animal (1876) (via Museo Frida Kahlo/Wikimedia)
Ex voto for a truck accident (19th century) (photo by Andrés Marín Jarque, via Museu Valencià d'Etnologia/Wikimedia)
Ex-voto for a truck accident (photo by Andrés Marín Jarque, via Museu Valencià d’Etnologia/Wikimedia)
Votive offering from 1938 dedicated to San Nicolás de Tolentino (via Museo Frida Kahlo/Wikimedia)
Votive offering dedicated to San Nicolás de Tolentino (1938) (via Museo Frida Kahlo/Wikimedia)
Ex voto for an accident from Southern Germany (1825) (via Germanisches Nationalmuseum/Wikimedia)
Ex-voto for an accident from Southern Germany (1825) (via Germanisches Nationalmuseum/Wikimedia)
Austrian ex voto from 1849 for an accident with a bell (via Uoaei1/Wikimedia)
Austrian ex-voto in the Liebfrauenkirche Kitzbühel for an accident with a bell (1849) (via Uoaei1/Wikimedia)
1843 ex voto of a cart accident (via Hampel Kunstauktionen/Wikimedia)
Ex-voto for a cart accident (1843) (via Hampel Kunstauktionen/Wikimedia)
Ex voto in Tuscany for a man who survived being caught on fire (via Sailko/Wikimedia)
Ex-voto from Tuscany for a man who survived being caught on fire (via Sailko/Wikimedia)
Ex voto for Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos, Mexico, from 1938, from a man attacked on the street (via Tropenmuseum Amsterdam/Wikimedia)
Ex-voto for Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos, Mexico, from a man attacked on the street (1938) (via Tropenmuseum Amsterdam/Wikimedia)
Votive painting from 1912 for Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos, Mexico, for surviving an animal attack (photo by Andreas Praefcke/Wikimedia)
Votive painting for Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos, Mexico, for surviving an animal attack (1912) (photo by Andreas Praefcke/Wikimedia)
Ex voto of a deer injury in Santuario della Madonna di San Romano, Montopoli in Val d'Arno, Italy (photo by Sailko/Wikimedia)
Ex-voto of a deer injury in Santuario della Madonna di San Romano, Montopoli in Val d’Arno, Italy (photo by Sailko/Wikimedia)
Ex voto for a 1928 accident in the Museo Adriano Bernareggi (photo by Sailko/Wikimedia)
Ex-voto for an accident in the Museo Adriano Bernareggi (1928) (photo by Sailko/Wikimedia)
Ex voto oil on canvas painting from 1794 of a ship in distress (via Städtisches Museum Überlingen/Wikimedia)
Ex-voto oil on canvas painting of a ship in distress (1794) (via Städtisches Museum Überlingen/Wikimedia)
Ex voto for an Italian man named Luigi Cobai who survived a 1902 fall (photo by Jean-Marc Pascolo)
Ex-voto for an Italian man named Luigi Cobai who survived a fall (1902) (photo by Jean-Marc Pascolo/Wikimedia)
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