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The 18th-Century Devotional Painting that Documents a Brutal Mastectomy

On April 25, 1777, a Mexican woman underwent an operation to remove six tumors from her breast. She commissioned an artist to paint it.

Unknown artist, "Peres Maldonado Ex-voto" (18th century, after 1777) (image courtesy of Davis Museum at Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA)
Unknown artist, “Peres Maldonado Ex-voto” (18th century, after 1777) (image courtesy Davis Museum at Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA)

On April 25, 1777, an aristocratic Mexican woman known as Doña Josefa Peres Maldonado underwent an operation to remove six cancerous tumors from her breast. She survived what must have been a procedure without antibiotics or anesthesia — but lived for only five more months, passing away on September 5. The specifics of her tragic tale remain known to us 239 years later because Peres Maldonado had commissioned an artist to document the moment of her mastectomy in a highly detailed oil painting.

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Detail of “Peres Maldonado Ex-voto” (18th century, after 1777) (image courtesy Davis Museum at Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA)

Known as “Peres Maldonado Ex-voto,” the work belongs to the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, which last month unveiled a massive transformation of its permanent collection galleries. The reinstallation focuses on objects’ specific geographies and chronologies, and curators have brought out more works to double the number on view. “Peres Maldonado Ex-voto” now hangs in a gallery of Southern Baroque and Spanish colonial art, which contains objects that represent attitudes towards Catholicism within the context of 18th-century Spanish colonialism.

As its name indicates, the work is an ex-voto: a devotional painting created to commemorate divine salvation from terrible misfortunes, from severe illnesses to natural disasters. Ex-votos were popular in colonial Mexico, frequently commissioned through the mid 20th century, but this one is particularly rare for its graphic and intimate subject matter, as James Oles, the museum’s associate curator of Latin American art, told Hyperallergic.

“There may have been mastectomies performed in the colonial Americas; surely this woman was not alone,” Oles said. “I doubt they were visually documented, however — indeed, they aren’t usually visually documented today. Thus, it may be the first depiction of such an operation in the history of Western art, outside of medical illustrations.” One contemporaneous ex-voto from Mexico, he added, depicts a wealthy man suffering from the plague and vomiting, but no other examples are similar to the Peres Maldonado painting.

“I think the interest is less in science — the operation was fairly brutal by our standards — than in her extraordinary calm given the bloody butchery of the operation, as testimony to her devotion,” Oles said.

Exvoto of Lieutenant Diego de la Parra, 1711, 101 x 142 cm. Museo Nacional de Arte_INBA, Secretaría de Cultura, Mexico
Unknown artist, “Ex-voto of Lieutenant Diego de la Parra” (1711) (image courtesy James Oles)

Indeed, surely under no normal circumstances could Peres Maldonado have maintained such a sense of serenity and control over her body as she witnessed a slender knife slice through her flesh. The artist has spared us no detail of the process, with blood spurting from the wound and gushing down to stain her white robe. Yet the scene is one of utmost stillness: as the surgeon makes his cut, a monk gingerly supports the patient and an assistant stands by with scissors and gauze. Nor do the six other witnesses — the four women are likely family members — betray panicked thoughts, their expressions suggesting concern but hope.

The room suggests the subject’s deep devoutness: paintings of religious figures cover the back wall, and a grand, lace-draped altar occupies half the frame, adorned with a crucifix and large statues of the Virgin Mary. Spelling out her faith is text contained in an ornate floral border that reads, in part (as translated by Oles):

Doña Josefa Peres Maldonado offers this monument of her tremendous gratitude to the Most Holy Christ of the Ilex, venerated in the Church of Triana, and to the Most Holy Virgin Mary of El Pueblo, in perpetual memory of the Benefit, due to her piety, that resulted from an operation …

This was later altered when Peres Maldonado died, with a note indicating that although the wound had closed on July 25, 1777, she passed away from “other accidents” on a September afternoon, “with clear signs of the patronage of the Holy Image and of her devotion,” according to Oles.

The painting also offers some further sense of who Peres Maldonado was. She clearly lived a life of relative luxury, evident in the many opulent fabrics covering her bed, which boasts a Rococo headboard — a fashionable, French-style structure. The room is highly decorated, featuring a patterned wool rug, wall of red brocade, and lacquered folding screen, which, as Oles explained, shows the impact of Asian trade on Mexican colonial arts.

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Detail of “Peres Maldonado Ex-voto” (18th century, after 1777) (image courtesy Davis Museum at Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA)

What happened to the ex-voto after its patron passed is largely lost to time, but it eventually ended up in the hands of none other than André Breton. In the spring of 1938, when the Surrealist ventured to Mexico, he acquired the painting for his growing collection of Mexican folk art. The work went on view the following year in an exhibition simply titled Mexique at the Galerie Renou & Colle in Paris, along with paintings by Frida Kahlo and photographs by Manuel Alvarez Bravo.

The Breton estate auctioned off the painting in 2003. At the Davis Museum, it now hangs in a bright red room, in conversation with a small Spanish Baroque devotional painting; 18th- and 19th-century ivory fragments from what were once statues of saints; and a circa 1750 polychrome sculpture of Saint Teresa of Ávila that features a separately carved heart. They are relics of past, personal devotion — tangible objects that once affirmed spiritual faith.

Installation view at the Davis Museum
Installation view at the Davis Museum
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