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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.
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-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.