Spain emerged as a world power with the rise of Isabella and Ferdinand. When the Conquistadors, under their banner of Catholicism, reached Mexico in 1519 to spread the word of God, they witnessed a miracle: an easy, large-scale conversion of that land’s indigenous populations.
Along with Church teachings, the Conquistadors introduced religious symbols like crucifixes, statues, and altars to facilitate Man’s communication with God. Initially, these altars, like those in their homeland, were backed by collections of Church-sanctioned ornately decorated religious images called retablos.
By the 17th century however, retablos, in a blend of indigenous folk and Roman Catholic beliefs, had evolved into smaller, more personal votive offerings to Christ, the Virgin, archangels, and the saints. Votives are nothing new. For thousands of years they have reflected and deflected the common cares of Man, his impotence in the face of fate, his preoccupation with health and human suffering, his desire to bring forth children, and his need to earn his keep.
Whether ancient Greeks or Romans, whether Hindu or Catholic, believers, for thousands of years, have nailed, pinned, or hung ribboned votives on religious shrines or altars, marking wishes fulfilled, vows taken, and miracles wrought. Many of these votives, known in Spanish as milagros, are tiny charms about the size of a quarter that come in an imaginative variety of shapes. Their significance varies with each person and his circumstance. Older versions of these milagros have become highly collectible worldwide in the last 15 years.
A Flaming Sacred Heart of Jesus milagro, for example, may signify desire for a romantic relationship, ease from heart disease, or heartfelt thanks. A leg-shaped one may express gratitude for a healed limb or since legs indicate movement, anything connected with travel. A burro milagro may symbolize a stray animal that found its way home, desire for an extra pair of “field hands,” or to labor harder. On the other hand, many milagros, especially those health-related, are very specific, portraying a stomach for digestive woes, an ear for hearing problems, or an eye for an eye ailment.
Traditionally these tiny talismans, whether hand-made or mass-produced of tin, silver, pottery, bone, carved wood, or just about anything, are displayed publicly. Since they usually bear neither markings nor identification, however, their true significance lies hidden in the hearts of their owners.
Ex-votos, vows visually portrayed on wood, tin, or canvas plaques, are another story entirely. Believers who experienced heavenly intervention usually commission these folk-art creations. They often feature highly personal representations of miracles displayed for all to see.
Ex-voto artists traditionally painted these plaques, most of which date back to the 19th and early 20th century, in three separate sections. The ornately garbed heavenly being who affected the miracle floats weightless in a celestial blue sky. A vibrantly colored representation of an infirmity healed, danger survived, or miracle wrought appears on the earth below. A short narrative, faithfully describing the elements of the divine occurrence, follows. These one-of-a-kind creations, aside from their folk charm and artistic value, offer fascinating glimpses into the personal lives of the pious.
A farmer, for example, might invoke heavenly intervention for abundant rainfall, to insure a fruitful harvest. If his prayers are answered, he might commission an ex-voto portraying himself at prayer in a shower of rain. He might then display it either at a public shrine or at his home altar, where it could focus his prayers in future droughts.
A woman who, in the midst of a perilous traffic accident, invoked intercession from the Mexican Catholic Marian image Our Lady of Guadalupe, might commission an ex-voto in her honor. Along with a visual portrayal, it would typically include a detailed description of the slippery road, her swerving car, her name, as well as the date, and location of her miraculous survival.
An ex-voto celebrating the return of a missing child might feature her mother kneeling in prayer, arms raised toward Heaven. Another might feature a matador, votive candle in hand, venerating deliverance from a raging bull. An ex-voto marking grievous burns healed would not merely portray that miracle in vivid colors, but would also recount it in faithful detail. Within Hispanic culture, believers draw strength from both the miraculous tales and holy presence of these powerful folk-art creations.
Since Man’s cares are universal, ex-voto artists, through their lifetimes, have probably created the same images thousands of times over. So why are authentic antique ex-votos so rarely on the market? As religious shrines and altars filled to overflowing, authorities, to make room for more offerings, regularly discarded the images or if were made of metal, melted them down, creating them anew. Moreover, those suspected to be imbued with holiness, were burned rather than profaned. The few antique ex-votos that have survived typically command hundreds of dollars on the market. Faithful replicas, however, less collectible but just as charming, can be found for considerably less.
Many South Americans and rural Spaniards still commission ex-votos today. Hispanics in the United States too value these personal religious images, not only affirming their faith and their culture, but also expressing a deep yearning for their homeland.
Hispanics also continue to rely on milagros, either to tame traditional troubles as of old, or to ease contemporary afflictions like depression, drug addiction, or fear of flying. Those coveting or tending 21st century trappings will also find computer and motorcycle milagros.
According to Robert Bitto, owner of Sueños Latin American Imports located at www.suenosimports.com, many of his customers, instead of displaying them at religious shrines, carry milagros in their pockets or wear them as jewelry, for luck and protection.
Time and again, he has found that these charms may affect peoples’ lives profoundly. “A woman told me about her liver problems,” he recalls, “ so I slipped a liver milagro into her bag of gifts. When she found it, she confided that she was not given much time to live. Five years later she returned — alive and well. Though her doctors could offer no explanation, she credited her recovery to her faith in the healing power of her milagro.”
Two important collections of milagros and ex-votos will comprise a museum exhibit titled Requesting Miracles: Votive Offerings from Diverse Cultures on March 26, 2010, at the Alice and William Jenkins Gallery at Crealdé School of Art, Winter Park, Fla.
The three curators, Dr. Kristin Congdon, Natalia Marques da Silva and Rima Jabbur, selected the Marcondes & Rugiero Collection of Brazilian Ex-Votos and a variety of Mexican retablos from the collection of Dr. Mariolina Rizzi Salvatori.
More information can be found at the exhibit’s Web site http://votiveofferings.tk.
Mary Simmons is a foreign-based freelance writer educated at New York’s Columbia University and the Juilliard School. She specializes in writing about world religions, genealogy and antiques and collectibles.
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