Ex Voto

Votive Giving Across Cultures

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Ittai Weinryb
Bard Graduate Center - Cultural Histories of the Material World
  • Chicago, IL: 
    Bard Graduate Center
    , January
     250 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This volume is dedicated to a cross-cultural and transhistorical study of votive giving and, in particular, the material gifts given to the divinities as fulfillment of vows. The title Ex Voto refers to the formulaic Latin statement found on numerous catholic votive gifts (ex voto suscepto, from the vow made), but the collection also comprise contributions dealing, for example, with antique practices of votive giving as well as Japanese Ema tablets and Iranian Muharram Ceremonies.

This book should be recommended for its highly relevant approach to a group of material objects that are often filed under categories such as “popular” devotion, decorative art, “folklore” or “superstition”—categories that many contributions in the volume discuss in detail (e.g. Ittai Weinryb, Michele Bacci and Megan Homles). Each individual articles attempts to dig deeper into the—highly interrelated—specificities of the votive objects: their form, symbolic potentials, and materiality. In particular, two types of votive gifts crystalize from the material studies: in the first category are objects made in a form that represents a part of, or a similitude with, the devotee’s body. Such objects are made from a wide variety of materials including terra-cotta, wax, precious stones, and other materials. To the second category belong painted tablets depicting a scenario related to the votive practice. It might be possible to argue the case for a third category consisting of items produced for human—and godly?—consumption.

The comparative potential of this book—which is spelled out in Weinryb’s concluding chapter—is indeed one of its many assets. A foundational assumption that runs through all of the contributions is that rituals of votive giving share a conceptual framework. Votive gifts are generally material results of a promise; “it makes a spiritual or supernatural exchange tangible as a token of the relationship forged between humans and their gods,” as Weinryb states in his stimulating introduction (3). By bringing studies of devotional practices from contemporary Mexico, Ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy, seventeenth-century Japan, and contemporary Iran together with articles investigating the transformation of votive practices and their material manifestations in one volume, the primordial human need for expressing their relations to the deities in material and sensory form is underlined.

The individual chapters in this volume are topical, very well written, and will appeal to other specialists in their respective fields. Reading Ex Voto as a whole is, however, recommended. The cross-cultural and transhistorical perspective is indeed invigorating and inspires new perspective. Jessica Hughes’s contribution offers a biography of a single votive terra-cotta figurine from Nemi (fourth-to-second-century BCE) through time and space, illustrating that the meaning of votive objects is never fixed, but relates to very different spatial and cultural contexts for understanding such objects e.g. production, cultic changes, excavation, and exhibition. Alexa Petsalis-Diomidis examines the practice, rituals, and meaning of healing votive objects from the same period and underlines the importance of careful iconographic scrutiny. Bacci investigates late medieval tavolette dipinte—small narrative painted votive tablets—that became widespread in Italy in the second half of the fifteenth century. It is argued that the tablets were not only expressions of gratitude to a specific saint and a fulfillment of a vow made, but also expressed the donor’s hope for eternal salvation, pro anima. The reader is thus reminded that medieval images are polysemous and may have several potential functions in spite of the context of donation—in this case the fulfillment of a vow. Megan Holmes attempts to show that much modern art history, when dealing with votive objects, is deeply rooted in critical Protestant and Enlightenment perspectives on Catholic devotion. She returns to Aby Warburg and the way in which Renaissance theology and poetry articulated similarities and differences between classical gifts to the gods and Christian votive offerings. Her contribution reminds us of how important it is to reflect on the practice of interpretation. Frederika Jacobs offers yet a third take on Italian Renaissance votive panels. Her contribution reflects on the choice of material medium. She concludes that tavolette—as opposed to valuable votives made of silver and gold and beset with precious gems—expressed the humbleness of the soul before God. The contribution is thus an important reminder of the relevance of a material perspective. Hilary K. Snow directs our focus towards Japanese Ema tablets and their reception across time. She argues that the practice of donating Ema tablets gradually underwent a process of secularization. As a result, their votive meaning was superseded by aesthetic value. Her contribution, thus, exemplifies that spiritual objects, in general, often balance on the threshold between religious meaning and aesthetic value. Clara Bargellini investigates the variety of ex-voto objects donated to a specific sanctuary in Mexico—Santo Cristo of Saltillo—and argues that donors were, to a large extent, preoccupied with donating objects that could be located in near proximity with the saint at the site. Her contribution inspires a circumstantial—and not purely object-related—focus. Hannah Baader provides a short history of maritime ex-votos, focusing in particular on the metaphoric possibility of seeing “ships as bodies and figures of transfer” (217). Ships were regarded as sacred things (res sacra) that mediated, Baader argues, between heaven and earth. Christiane Gruber studies present day votive practices related to the Islamic Muharram ceremony. Votive images (nazr) are not approved by religious institutions, but in ceremonial practice they nevertheless stand as a necessary approach to the sacred. This chapter illuminates the proficiency in the comparative model: that material practices found in different religious cultures share fundamental similarities. A final concluding chapter by Weinryb—already mentioned above—underlines this point. The individual chapters thus inform each other and stimulate the reader, regardless of one’s particular scholarly interest and focus. They cover a wide range of general questions that scholarly works dealing with religious matter have to take into account.

Last-but-not-least the content is pleasantly mediated by a clean layout, good quality paper, plenty and beautiful color plates, and thorough editing.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Laura Katrine Skinnebach is a post-doctoral ellow in art history, focusing on medieval and early modern religious cultures, at the University of Aarhus, Denmark.

Date of Review: 
September 30, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ittai Weinryb is associate professor at the Bard Graduate Center at the University of Chicago.


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