Ex-Votos: Art as Gratitude and Healing

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.

On the 10th of April La Internacional burnt down, and there, by accident was Albino Alviso. And being at the point of dying, he humbly prayed to Señor del Hospital (literally ‘Lord of the Hospital’ and depicted in the upper left) and to Our Lady of Guadalupe (barely visible in the upper right corner) to deliver him from danger, and being saved, he is now grateful. Gelaya, May 16th 19?

The composition of an ex-voto can be divided into three parts:

  1. A painted scene depicting – at times in graphic detail – someone who has been gravely ill or been the victim of a tragedy. 
  2. A saint or martyr who is credited with intervening on the individual’s behalf by providing healing or rescue.
  3. 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.

Señora Carmen Elena commended her son to San Antonio de Padua de la Sauceda, when having fallen into a well, He delivered him from danger, and as an expression of gratitude, she dedicates the present retablo (altarpiece).

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.

Infinite gratitude to the Holy Virgen of the Sacred Heart, for having obtained, thanks to Her intercession with Our Lord, the health of my father, Sr. José Rodríguez who suffered from serious eye burns, when a barrel of lime exploded. I. de Jesús Rodríguez. Laçíos de Marano, Jal. December, 1951.

Gratitude to Señor del Hospital (Lord of the Hospital), for He blessed me with a miracle during the two operations I went through from the 11th to the 18th of February, 1960, which were successful. José Mosqueda Páramo. México D. Fe. 1960.

This retablo (altarpiece) is a testimony of gratefulness and devotion to San Ramón Nonato and the Blessed Virgen de San Juan, for the critical operation that Sra. Lucina Barros underwent, during which she was commended to Them by her relatives and her friend Marisa Aguilar, who dedicate it to Him. August, 19?

I dedicate the present retablo (altarpiece) to Señor de la Salud de Salamanca, as a token of gratitude for the graces granted. Jesús Murillo. León Cito.

In Zacatecas On the 20th of May 1849, the artilleryman Cleto Delgado, having finished his exercises, was putting the piece back in its place when it hit the frame door; and trying to hold it, his right arm was torn apart. At the hospital, they wanted to amputate his arm, which he thought was not good, so he went to his house where he suffered for eight months, after which time he was … fine..

Blessed Virgin of Guadalupe. You delivered me from that woman, that taking me for someone else, wanted to get me off the train, pushing me and ill-treating me. I put myself into Your hands and could get away safe and sound. That’s why as a token of my gratitude I dedicate this retablo (altarpiece). Maxima Zuztaita. Armadillo de los Inpante, January 1962.

I am grateful to God our Lord and to the Blessed Virgin of Guadalupe for having delivered me from a heart ache, and I make vows of gratitude for the graces received during the month of February 1957. Felicitas González. La Barca, Jal. February 26th, 1958.

♦ 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.


Categories: CultureTags: , , , , , ,


  1. Fascinating, Henry, thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Those were very interesting. The thanks and devotions by the individuals was obvious and heartfelt.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Henry, thanks for bringing this art form to our attention. What an excellent way of expressing one’s gratitude in a form accessible to all members in the community! I imagine that such works of art also strengthened the religious faith of other church members.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Rosaliene,

      I would guess your hunch [strengthened the religious faith of other church members] is correct. As you note, these small folk art paintings were created to be easily accessible to all members of the church community. As always, thank you for sharing your insights. You and your boys take good care!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Something I had never heard of and had never seen. Educational and an insight into people’s minds. I love the colours. Thanks Henry.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is an unusual and interesting post theme. I was wondering if the process could be reversed, rather than asking for a change, like healing, could we conceive of an ex-voto to keep the existing, like health.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is an interesting question. My mind came up with several variations on such a theme while doing a bit of research for this post. It seems that we humans are often more focused on eliminating the suffering of the moment than on planning for the future. Take good care. By the way, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your posts (and great photos) on Bolivia, a country I still haven’t visited.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for the compliment, much appreciated. I can only encourage you to visit Bolivia if you have the opportunity. There is a wide variety of different interests that should appeal to everyone.

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  6. These are beautiful. I knew about these but had not seen many. Art really is universal and for all sorts of reasons. We are all creative individuals and art should never be made to be the realm of the few.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I have never heard of this beautiful form of art before.

    Thanks for informing and sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I love these and the stories behind them! They remind me a little of the (crudely) embroidered panels I have seen in Guanajuato state, telling stories of a child or farm animal, often with a religious reference. One more reason to go to Puebla! Happy New Year!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Kim,

      I’ve never seen the embroidered panels you mention but will search for those. Yes, Puebla is an interesting city with far more arts offerings than I had expected. Happy New Year to you as well!


  9. Thank you for sharing these wonderful images with us. The remind me of the folk art sculptures of Miles Carpenter. (From a little town called Waverly, Virginia which is close to where I grew up.) These artists speak to us in a way that more academically trained artists are unable to speak.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi John,

      I also share your love for folk/outsider art. Howard Finster is one of my favorites and I, of course, love Miles Carpenter’s whimsical sculptures as well. These, and so many other under-recognized artists, exhibit humanity’s primal need for self-expression. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. The Retablos are so heart felt and are such great folk art. They are at the heart of people’s beliefs. They made me think of two things; the metal symbols for hands, hearts, heads in Guatemala at a church signifying healing events and the paintings of Frida Kahlo. Thanks for sharing them! Happy New Year, Rebecca

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  11. Very interesting post, which I’ve enjoyed greatly as I have been studying this ex-votos and noticing their influence in the work of many contemporary painters.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Another fascinating subject we knew very little about. You covered it well Henry! Best wishes and health in 2021!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi John and Susan,

      As you both know, it’s the unexpected things – like this ex-voto exhibit – that we encounter accidently that make travel so rewarding. Thanks for your comments and take good care!


  13. Henry, this is fascinating. I’m familiar with ex-votos in the form of milagros or tamata (tiny sliver charms), but I wasn’t aware of the paintings. Beautiful photos. Thanks so much for expanding my knowledge. Wishing you a fabulous 2021. 🙂 Terri & James

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Terri and James,

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on ex-votos. I wasn’t familiar with the paintings either until I serendipitously stumbled into the gallery in Puebla. I think these small paintings offer fascinating insights into the culture and religious beliefs of the people living in regions where this devotional art form has continued. Wishing you both a joyful 2021! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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