There are many ways to say, ” thank you” to the deities, but none so enduring as the “ex-voto.”
Tributes to the help of the saints come in many forms, and the photo you see with this column is just one of them. These tributes come in metal, wax or wood. They were painted in two dimensions, or in actual physical forms (such as crutches), which were placed through the ages in shrines and upon sanctified trees.
J.E. sent me her family ‘ex-voto” and asked, “What is this for?”
What does the Palais du Rosaire in the sanctuary of Lourdes have to do with the silver repousse medallion you see here? Well, the shine of Our Lady of Lourdes is a place marked by ex votos, hanging with the assorted crutches, which are actual ex votos themselves.
At the basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde hangs such silver heart medallions, along with models of ships (those that had been spared shipwreck), So hang ex votos in the alley of the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal.
J.E.’s ex-voto is Italian. We know that because of the initials “G.R.,” which stand for “grazia ricevuta.” This is “thank you” for grace received.
The term ex voto is from the Latin phrase “ex voto suscepto.” meaning “from the vow made.”
An ex voto can be purchased today as it was in the 19th century when J.E.’s was purchased, from a shrine’s gift shop.
They were used in four ways as a “thank you” to the deity.
The “ex voto suscepto” was hung for a wish granted. The “propitiatory ex-voto” was given to encourage a request. A “gratulatory ex voto” was given to show devotion.
And the “surerogatory ex voto” is given as a memorial.
J.E.’s ex voto is in the shape of a heart, the sacred heart, which originated in the 11th century and was solidified in the 17th century by a Catholic nun Marguerite Marie Alacoque, who was visited by Christ, who showed her his heart entwined with thorns and flowers. It was she who established the Sacred Heart Feast Day.
Perfect timing, because 30 years later one of the waves of the Great Plague ensued, and Marseilles was beleaguered. The bishop there proclaimed the city to the Sacred Heart to spare his people in 1720. And it worked.
In the French Revolution, the Sacred Heart was worn by Royalist Catholics who opposed the Republican Revolutionaries, and, in the conservative era before World War I, the Sacre Coeur Basilica was built in Paris in 1914.
The tradition of offering gifts to deities goes back to Etruscan times when “donaria” were hung at scared altars and on sacred trees and rocks.
Therefore, the tradition of the ex voto has been around for millennia as a marker of something that connects the human in a thin line to the divine.
J.E.’s ex voto is crafted in a silver plate metal, but they were made in gold, tin, were bejeweled or made in wax.
Ex votos sometimes were not representational, but were actual things, like wedding dresses, baby clothes, crutches, models of ships, portraits of people. The most bizarre were pieces of the human body. Those ex votos could be actual human parts, but sometimes represented as such in metal as medallions. These were called “ex votos anatomico.”
The wonderful Mexican retablo is another form of the ex voto, brought over from Italy in the 15th century when distinguished artists were paid to craft images for wealthy patrons. These images were of miracles hoped for.
In Mexico, the paintings of such miracle-wishes would become smaller, crafted on wood or tin, but the tradition of commission still continued.
Similarly in Italy ex votos were first commissioned by the wealthy, but adopted by the lower classes. These are delightful,because they combine the image with words. Usually we see at the top of a little painting the image of the supplicant and the image of the saint reaching out his/her arm to the pleader.
Down a little in the painting, you will see the image of the miracle that is hoped for. Underneath the images, you will see the names, dates and description in writing of the miracle that is wished.
Photography’s advent changed the image at the shrines, and today we see photos of supplicants and their notes, but these 19th-century ex votos still find a place in our hearts. Something to think about in this season of showing gratitude: There is more out there than just us.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.