Ex-votos: divine thanks for near misses

Near misses, luck or divine intervention? Whether it is escape from injury, shipwreck of even defamation, discover what people have used ex-votos to express their gratitude for.

By Museum of Ethnology & Museum of Popular Art

Ex-votos in Portugal

In Latin, the term “ex-voto”, is described as: a votive offering of thanks to a sacred entity for a miraculous act. In Portugal ex-votos can be found throughout the country in sanctuaries like this one in the Alentejo. The ex-votos in this exhibition, from the museum’s, collection show us that these offerings were used in Portugal as a vehicle of popular religiosity. They express thanks for: the curing of illness, escape from life threatening situations or even saviour from shipwrecks. Lesser common offerings address escape from social persecution with one such ex-voto showing us a priest expressing his thanks for salvation from defamation. The use of ex-votos was wide-spread throughout Portugal during the 18th & 19th centuries. In the 19th century, the medium shifted from painting towards photography, this being the preferred method used to this day. During the 1960/70s votive photographic portraits saw surge in use, as a form of thanks for the safe return of veterans from the Portuguese Colonial War (Ultramar).

Painted ex-voto - Our Lady of Carmo (1851) by Unknown authorMuseum of Ethnology & Museum of Popular Art

This ex-voto to Our Lady of "Carmo", is an offering from a couple (Francisco Martins and Maria da Conceição) asking for the full recuperation of their sick daughter (Vicência de Jesus).

Painted ex-voto to Our Lady of The Sorrows (1818) by Unknown authorMuseum of Ethnology & Museum of Popular Art

This ex-voto to Our Lady of Sorrows from an unidentified believer is also a thanks for the salvation of his/her sick daughter.

Painted Ex voto, Saint Sebastian (1839) by Unknown authorMuseum of Ethnology & Museum of Popular Art

Whilst surrounded by fire in Oporto Manuel de Joaquim de Carvalho prayed to S. Sebastian for saviour. This ex-voto is a thanksgiving for his having survived the incident.

Painted ex-voto of thanks (19th century) by Unknown authorMuseum of Ethnology & Museum of Popular Art

Here, an ex-voto, painted on wood, dating from the 19th century, depicts a woman, three boys and a man, on their knees and with hands folded, giving thanks to Our Lady for "exempting a son from becoming a soldier", as detailed in the inscription at the lower section of the painting.

Painted ex-voto to Our Lady of the "Carmo" (19th century) by Unknown authorMuseum of Ethnology & Museum of Popular Art

This ex-voto to Our Lady of the ‘Carmo’ is an offering from Joaquim Torixa and his family, who lived in Évora. According to the inscription it is a thank you from the former after his surviving a fall from scaffolding.

Painted ex-voto - Our Lady of the Conception (19th century) by Unknown authorMuseum of Ethnology & Museum of Popular Art

This undated ex-voto to Our Lady of the Conception, is a votive offering from Manuel Joaquim for the salvation of his wife during childbirth. In it the mother and new-born child lay next to each other whilst the rest of the family prays for their recovery.

Painted ex-voto to Our Lady of the Incarnation (18-19th century) by Unknown authorMuseum of Ethnology & Museum of Popular Art

Here we have a votive offering for the salvation of Carlos Ferreira who fell from the height of 50 "palms", while repairing the roof of his house.

Painted Ex-voto to Our Lady of "Atalaia" (1894) by Unknown authorMuseum of Ethnology & Museum of Popular Art

In this ex-voto to Our Lady of "Atalaia", a votive offering is made from a ship’s crew for its salvation from a (probable) shipwreck on November 11, 1894

Painted Ex-voto to Our Lady of the Relics (1832) by Unknown authorMuseum of Ethnology & Museum of Popular Art

The ex-voto is to Our Lady of the Relics is a votive offering for the salvation of Feliciana Rosa during childbirth.

Here a naive trompe-l'oiel technique has been used, whereby the sick bed has been painted over the frame to create a sense of depth.

Painted ex-voto - Saint Anthony (19th century) by Unknown authorMuseum of Ethnology & Museum of Popular Art

Here we have a votive offering from the Priest António Ribeiro, to Saint Anthony for having been saved from a false accusation.

Painted ex-voto to Our Lady of the Incarnation (1748) by Unknown authorMuseum of Ethnology & Museum of Popular Art

Whether these were acts of divine intervention, or chance, we will never know!

Nonetheless, these naive renderings give us great insights into the popular religiosity and iconography of the time. They are also an important record of 18th & 19th century domestic interiors, a theme seldom addressed in high Portuguese art.

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