One day I was browsing in the La Lagunilla antique market in Mexico City, when some small, hand-painted images depicting the burning Twin Towers jumped out at me.
These were not works of art in the traditional sense. The painting styles were crude at best, none done by professionals, but that is part of the reason they are so special.
They belong to a class of folk art called “ex-votos,” “retablos” or “laminas,” translated into English as votive paintings. The most traditional of these are painted by ordinary people onto sheets of metal such as tin and then left at a church or shrine. These can be made dedicated to a saint, the Virgin Mary, an image of Jesus, or the Holy Spirit but Ive never seen one directed at God, the Father. Sometimes they are petitions but most seem to be to give thanks for a blessing received.
Someone next to me at the market warned that these were copies of votive paintings, not real one, which made me feel better about buying one… as I wasn´t treating someone’s heartfelt expression as a decorative item. But on the other hand, churches and shrines have limited space and cannot keep all of the votive paintings they receive, so they sell old ones.
Since the early 20th century, they have become collectors’ items, not only for their aesthetics, but also cultural value. They have influenced the development of 20th century Mexican art, with even Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo amassing large collections and using elements from them in their work, such as the bottom description in a portrait of Wilhelm Kalhlo.
Many of the petitions and thanks are for blessings one would expect, such as recovering from an illness, to economic fortune or giving birth to a child. Some have themes one would definitely not expect for something related to religion, such as a lover successfully escaping when a husband returns home, or a prostitute grateful to find a husband despite her (former) profession. Many of these relate to the times in which they are made, with the appearance of car accidents or surviving AIDS and even show social changes, such as homosexuals giving thanks for finding a partner.
These narrative painting generally contain a scene that depicts the situation, with the petitioner prominent, often praying. The deity is depicted above the scene, usually on the right and at the bottom, there is a short narration with the petition or expression of thanks.
Many of these have found their way in public and private collections, but there are a number of shrines, especially in central and southern Mexico (with the strongest colonial heritage) where you can see large numbers of votive painting left for the patron. These include the Sanctuary of Chalma in the State of Mexico, the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos in Jalisco.
Interestingly enough, I did not buy the votive related to 9/11, as I found the image to be too haunting… but it did give me a sense of just how important and emotional these little paintings are to those who make them.
Featured image: Votive to the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos dated between 1920 and 1922 at the Tropenmuseum, Netherlands(credit: painter unknown, photograph by Andreas Praefcke) All other votives are by unknown artists. Photographer is the author unless otherwise noted. Image of Frida Kahlo’s painting under fair use.