Ex- Voto Paintings of Mexico

The Spring 2008 issue of Virginia Quarterly Review has a fascinating article by Rosamond Purell on the Ex- voto paintings of Mexico. These have been painted on paper by unknown artists and have adorned the walls of churches. They narrate stories, generally about saints and ‘miracles’. Often, these correspond to some real life events and are followed by a description of the painting in words.

each ex-voto narrates a saint in action, intervening in a near-disaster, accident, or illness that befalls ordinary human beings or animals. Each commemorates the miraculous intervention and expresses the gratitude of the survivors or loving families—husbands and wives, parents and children.

Take this image, for example:

About 1900 in Mexico City, the horse-drawn tranvia gave way to the electric trolley, leading to a rash of accidents involving horses, bicycles, and pedestrians. This four-part drama shows moments in the life of a young woman struck down by a trolley: first as a devout young girl; second, as a fashionable young woman falling in front of the on-coming trolley; and third, as an unconscious invalid in a four-poster bed attended by a praying woman draped in a black shawl. Each scene is set off in a burnished alcove, like episodes from the life of a saint, but the woman’s fate remains mysterious. The legend, though etched in an elegant hand, has vanished into a script as thin and ineffable as a spider-web.

I’m beguiled by these straightforward captions, believing that through their deceptive specificities—names, places, times (sometimes down to the hour of the day of the year)—the story can be decoded. I want to do my research, my homework; I want to get the miracle straight. The text painted on or scratched into the surface with a stylus is frequently faded to near-obscurity by the time I get my hands on it. The names, cryptified by dialect, effaced by rust, or painted over previous scenes, tell me little more than I can already surmise by studying the painted scenes. Yet, something about the scuffed and scratched surfaces of ex-votos conspires to increase their mysteries. Secreted beneath the multiple strata of revelations contained beneath its skin, I know, there lies the essence of personal despair and redemption.

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