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Between the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE, someone buried a terracotta female deity in northern India, an action of hope for the fertility of the earth. In the late 5th century BCE, a woman left a marble tribute at a Greek sanctuary to thank a goddess for helping her survive childbirth; its sculpted scene portrays the new mother collapsed in a chair, a nurse and the goddess offering solace. In the 19th century, lungs were carved from wood and suspended in a sacred space in Bavaria, perhaps asking for some intervention in the rampant spread of tuberculosis. In 1995, a pair of well-worn prosthetic legs were placed at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.
These tributes, offerings, and material messages of thanks are brought together in Agents of Faith: Votive Objects in Time and Place, an exhibition at Bard Graduate Center Gallery examining the centuries-long global tradition of using objects to connect with the divine. Whether a terracotta Etruscan bust of a young man with his abdominal organs exposed, or a spine sculpted in wax with one rib broken from 1960s Cyprus, they are often made from humble materials, and transmuted through prayer or meditation into something spiritual. Installed across three floors of the Manhattan institution, Agents of Faith’s over 300 objects explore why this practice is so enduring.
“The act of votive giving is intimate, and its personal dedicatory sentiment is unique to its devotee,” curator Ittai Weinryb, an associate professor at Bard Graduate Center, states in the accompanying catalogue. “Some votives are made in the hope of a miracle or a cure from a disease, while others are made in gratitude for a successful medical procedure. Still other votives are a result of a devotee’s miraculous salvation from natural or human catastrophe — storms, avalanches, motor accidents or war. Some votive objects mark the memory of a past event that is later celebrated in a material form. In all these situations, the object acts as a material representation, as an agent of faith for the human participant.”
Organized by Weinryb with Chief Curator Marianne Lamonaca and Associate Curator Caroline Hannah, Agents of Faith thoughtfully gives attention to diverse parts of the globe. Only the Vietnam Veterans Memorial gets its own floor, dominated by a 1994 Harley Davidson Police Special motorcycle presented at the wall in 1995. In this pensive experience, there is something missing of the overwhelming emotional sensation of visiting a shrine; wall-sized photographs, such as one of amassed wooden hands dangling in a Brazilian convent, only hint at the power of being in places where so many people have expressed their most private hopes and gratitudes. Nevertheless, the exhibition does encourage time with each piece to consider its origin story. Both a 1951 Italian wooden donkey leg tied with a silk ribbon and a photograph of the healed animal, and a 19th-century Kongo kingdom power figure riddled with nails recalling individual vows, have moving reflections of universal hope and faith. An ex-voto painting of a 1944 aerial bombing in Sicily has three saints emerging from the heavens to protect its patron, the vivid depiction of war wordlessly communicating a relief at salvation.
Agents of Faith is not chronological, so visitors can start with the 14th-century Italian “Enthroned Virgin and Child,” which X-rays revealed contains traces of lace and a rosary left beneath the Madonna’s canvas clothes, or Yoko Ono’s “Wish Tree” (the series where visitors can tie wishes on branches has been ongoing since the 1980s, so it’s maybe a little overplayed, but engagement is important for an exhibition so much about interaction). There are thematic sections, like on the process of creating wax votive objects, and a whole case of heads, suggesting a deep human history of aches and mental maladies. Walls of ex-voto paintings are transfixing with their woeful narratives, from bloody surgical scenes to shipwrecks, all of which the devotees survived. A collection of retabalos created by Mexican migrant workers represent the harrowing dangers of the US border.
One large 1777 ex-voto oil painting from Mexico, previously covered by Claire Voon for Hyperallergic, graphically shows the mastectomy of Doña Josefa Peres Maldonado. Health is the overriding subject, particularly for interior ailments not easily treated in early medicine. Similarly, the numerous sculpted babies, sometimes shaped from wax to match the exact size and weight of an infant, reveal anxieties around childbirth, which for women could be deadly.
Votive offerings ask for something supernatural, to make a connection with a presence beyond the veil of this world, to wish for a miracle. The objects in Agents of Faith date back 4,000 years, and every single one conveys an incredibly personal dream, fear, vow, or healing. Rarely are the everyday lives of ordinary people recorded in history, yet through a 4th-century BCE clay cow, or a 1935 wooden hand from Sardinia brutally marred with painted blood, you can glimpse the universal trials of existence.
Agents of Faith: Votive Objects in Time and Place continues through January 6, 2019 at Bard Graduate Center Gallery (18 West 86th Street, Upper West Side, Manhattan). The exhibition was organized by Weinryb with Chief Curator Marianne Lamonaca and Associate Curator Caroline Hannah.