by Kimberly Ruiz, VPAM Student Tutor
We are going through a lot right now. For so many of us, life has changed drastically. For others who have no choice but to carry on and work, life has become a little riskier. As we go through this collective trauma, it is good for us to remind ourselves that humans are no strangers to hardship and suffering. Throughout history, time and time again, people have gone through adversity and made it through to the other side to tell the story and give thanks. Some people who make it through hardships like to give thanks to deities that they worship in the form of votive offerings, also known as ex-votos in Latin.
Ex-votos are usually meant to express devotion, gratitude, or to fulfill a vow and date back to Catholic practices originating in Italy in the 16th century. Over time, this practice spread all throughout Europe until eventually coming to the new world via European colonialism. One popular form of ex-votos comes in the form of small paintings serving as testimonials to divine intervention, or offerings of gratitude for surviving adversity. Originally, these paintings were made by classically trained artists until paint became accessible to the masses and most pieces were eventually produced by self-taught artists. Since these pieces were being made continuously, they were most commonly painted on wood or tin, and rarely on canvas. The Vincent Price Art Museum currently has a selection of ex-votos from its permanent collection on view. These works offer a window into the hardships that people have experienced throughout time, each one showing how it is possible to overcome with enough hope.
One piece from our collection that shows the hope we demonstrate today is Tierritas de Meandro Espinoza / Dear Lands of Meandro Espinoza (1958) painted on a tin sheet. The testimony reads, “The dear lands of Meandro Espinoza were in need of a lot of water so he asked the lord of Villasecas to bring the rain and he brought us the water. 4th of August of 1958 in Las Higueras, Nayarit. Meandro Espinoza P.” In this example, we see a man and his family who are in need of water for their land. They most likely cultivated their land for agricultural purposes but a drought made life very difficult for them. In moments like these, when we can’t control outside forces that affect our lives, it is important to keep in mind that it won’t last forever. They hoped for the storms to come and replenish their lands– as they eventually did– ensuring their survival.
Another piece in our collection that is very relatable today is Me Enfermé de Viruela / I Became Ill With Chickenpox (1941) painted on a piece of tin in the city of Tequila, Mexico. In this piece, we see a woman sitting up in her bed as she has her hands together in prayer. A crucified Jesus Christ is in the corner of the piece surrounded by clouds looking down at her. The text reads, “I became sick with chickenpox and was bedridden. On top of that, the hospital didn’t cure me. He (Jesus Christ) cured me, my cries for help were not in vain because of Lord Christ. 1940 Prudencia Rocha Ramirez widow of Pantaleon Ramirez. Tequila Jalisco… 1941.” In this image, a woman thanks Jesus Christ for healing her of her ailments, especially when no one else was able to help her and she was able to recover.
Looking at some ex-votos outside of our collection, we see a broader range of situations where people have overcome other hardships. In this ex-voto, we see a man crossing the Rio Bravo, as it is known in Mexico, or the Rio Grande, as it is known in the United States. The Rio Grande is a river that runs along the border of these two countries. The text reads, “I give infinite thanks to the Virgin Mary of San Juan for freeing me of danger while crossing the Rio Grande. Ascencio Garcia, León Guanajuato.” For many migrants from Mexico and Central America, crossing this river serves as the final obstacle in the journey to seek asylum in the United States. Unfortunately, the trek across this river is a treacherous one, as strong undercurrents, alligators and the unevenness of the riverbed have claimed many lives, of those in the search for a better life. Fortunately, many people do make it across, showing the spirit of human resilience.
Even those who are in the limelight go through severe hardship. Famous Mexican artist Frida Kahlo was known to live a life full of suffering she expressed through her art. Her work often dealt with the troubles of her tumultuous life as well as the bus accident that left her incapacitated for a very long time. Having survived being impaled by a handrail, she underwent several procedures that resulted in long, painful recovery times. Nonetheless, her parents were grateful that she survived, commissioning an ex-voto thanking the Virgin Mary of Dolores. The texts in the ex-voto read, “The couple Guillermo Kahlo and Matilde Kahlo give thanks to the Virgin Mary of Dolores for saving their daughter Frida from the accident that occurred 1925 on the corners of Cuauhtémoc and Tlaxcala.” In her moments of loneliness, Frida created work that would cement her legacy within Mexican culture. In her long bouts of bed rest, she was known to draw on her full body brace to cope with the isolation.
So, as we go through our own moments of isolation, it is important to note that as humans, we have gone through so much and we will continue to persevere. In fact, finding ways to share our experiences and stay connected have always been important to the human condition. This applies even to ex-votos, which originally were displayed inside churches, but in contemporary times are available for us to see and discuss over the Internet! Now ex-votos have a much larger reach even as the purpose of the tradition remains the same.
In two ex-votos made this year, we continue to see how the medium functions as a vehicle to express hope for the crises of today. One piece is a prayer of gratitude on behalf of the family depicted for being spared of the novel coronavirus. The text reads, “ My family and I are asking Saint Judas Tadeo to stop the pandemic and thanks to him we do not have COVID-19 coronavirus Estela Alberto 2020.” The next piece is a prayer of hope that the virus stops spreading soon for the good of humankind. It reads, “Holy Trinity, Oh divine providence! I humbly ask you with this ex-voto to find the cure for COVID-19 so we can stop this horrible pandemic that is affecting our world. I ask you for the health of those with the virus and for the eternal peace of those who did not survive. 2020.”
These pieces are similar in the fact that they are made in a graphic style common with modern poster art. Basic forms in various bright colors and uncomplicated compositions keep focus on the message. While simple, both are very effective in their imagery as they show people united in the worldwide issue. While one piece may show a bit more complexity in the figures shown, both share a theme of hope. They make a plea for a world without the virus where we can all return to our lives without the fear of getting sick.
Quarantine has been tough for many of us, but it is not forever. One day, when we get through this, we can all give thanks to whoever or whatever gave us hope through these difficult times. For now, let’s keep hope alive and make beautiful memories that will last, even if we are stuck at home.
Learn more about Images of the Divine in Everyday Mexico: Ex-Votos and retablos from the Permanent Collection here.
Kanno-youngs, Zolan. “Death on the Rio Grande: A Look at a Perilous Migrant Route.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 June 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/06/08/us/politics/migrants-drown-rio-grande.html.
Kelley, Wes. “The Painful Life of Frida Kahlo: How Injury Led to Inspiration.” Medium, Medium, 14 Sept. 2018, medium.com/@wnkelley13/the-painful-life-of-frida-kahlo-how-injury-led-to-inspiration-839210d3b58.
Meier, Allison, et al. “The Vivid Violence and Divine Healing of Ex-Voto Paintings.” Hyperallergic, 6 Jan. 2017, hyperallergic.com/334143/the-visualized-violence-and-divine-healing-of-the-ex-voto-painting/.
Mena, Vanessa. “¿Sabes Qué Son Los Exvotos Mexicanos y Por Qué Le Gustaban Tanto a Frida Kahlo?” VIX, VIX, 24 Mar. 2018, www.vix.com/es/arte-cultura/184084/sabes-que-son-los-exvotos-mexicanos-y-por-que-le-gustaban-tanto-a-frida-kahlo.
Unknown. “Retablos (@Ithankthevirgin) • Instagram Photos and Videos.” Instagram, 2020, www.instagram.com/ithankthevirgin/.
unknown. “Milagros,Retablos,Exvotos. (@Retablitos) • Instagram Photos and Videos.” Instagram, 2020, www.instagram.com/retablitos/.