Behind each ex-voto is a wish made to God, the Virgin Mary or a saint and a promise to give thanks to them for interceding in the widest variety of circumstances: danger, illness, accident, shipwreck, war, or other personal or group ordeal to survive. Here, the painter portrays an accident in which a cyclist was knocked down by a horse, under the watchful eye of a Virgin with Child whose featureless faces are completely black. This is the Black Virgin of Oropa, a Marian sanctuary and place of pilgrimage in the Piedmont region of Italy. Since the 14th century, the statue in that sanctuary has been known for performing miracles, and the chapel walls are covered with ex-votos from the faithful whose wishes were answered.
The painted ex-votos which appeared in the 17th century were inspired by medieval paintings representing the donor in prayer. Later, the main subject would instead recall the event that gave rise to the wish. Traditionally, the Virgin Mary or the interceding saint appears in the upper segment, in a figurative style that is specific to each sanctuary. In the lower section, a legend recounts the circumstances of the event and often the identity of the person who was saved. In the 19th century, local painters living nearby the most popular sanctuaries specialized in the serial production of these images to meet the many requests they received from pilgrims.
The Mucem has more than 700 of these thanksgiving plaques, in different forms and with different functions. Therapeutic ex-votos, for example, are moulded in wax, earth or metal and may depict healed human bodies or body parts, repaired (or acquired) vehicles, or pets.