A work of art can take many forms and be produced for a variety of purposes. Some artists create solely based on their inner passion and fundamental need to express themselves, while others may hope their work gains a degree of public recognition and helps to pay the bills. An audience may view a work of art as a thing of beauty, a social commentary or as a commodity to be bought and sold.
Beneath such overt visual interpretations, some forms of art represent devotion to a spiritual dimension and may also serve as a form of healing therapy. One example of such an art form can be found in the cultural and religious significance attached to ex-votos, small narrative paintings created to express gratitude to a saint who has provided relief from an accident, illness, mental anguish or financial ruin.
The composition of an ex-voto can be divided into three parts:
- A painted scene depicting – at times in graphic detail – someone who has been gravely ill or been the victim of a tragedy.
- A saint or martyr who is credited with intervening on the individual’s behalf by providing healing or rescue.
- An inscription detailing the tragic event or illness and offering gratitude to the saint for answering the individual’s prayers for deliverance.
While ex-votos were painted to represent actual traumatic events in an individual’s life, some of the creators found ways to add an element of humor along with the drama and devotion. Note the figure in the well in the ex-voto below.
Generally painted on sheets of metal or wood, ex-votos became popular in 16th century Italy and soon spread to other European countries where Catholicism was dominant. From there, their popularity spread to New Spain (Latin America) where the tradition continued, particularly in certain parish churches in Mexico.
The painting style used in creating an ex-voto is primitive and the language used in the inscriptions is often that of commoners. Many of these narrative paintings are anonymous, while others are believed to have been produced by painters who specifically offered their services near a main church.
Once completed, an ex-voto – filled with dramatic details and personal feelings – would be placed on the wall of a shrine within a chapel or church. In this way, the individual would publicly demonstrate their gratitude to a given saint or martyr who had protected them during a time of great need.
♦ Special thanks to Dr. Martha Pulido for her translation of the (often scratched and faded) inscriptions.
All the photos were taken by Henry Lewis at the Amparo Museum in the historic center of Puebla, Mexico.