Ex-Votos. Mexico. 1900s.
While visiting a church in Guadalupe in 1917, David Alfaro Siquieros, the great muralist painter of the Mexican Revolution, found, “along with broken candelabras and other typical church adornments,” a “true mountain” of small paintings tossed carelessly on the floor. He picked one up. It was “made of paper . . . painted with colored pencils but especially interesting, perhaps more primitive than the others, almost as if executed by a child.” And, thinking he was doing nothing wrong, he took it. A priest, witnessing the scene, shouted, “Thief!”—and armed sacristans dragged him off to the station.
I did not yet know the story of Siquieros’s theft when, some seventy-five years later in a warehouse in San Francisco, I came across hundreds of Mexican paintings on thin metal sheets showing auto accidents and deathbed scenes, victims and the presiding saints now scratched or rusted into obscurity. The careless piles suggested a great and hasty plunder, rarities snatched from an archeological site. It was a plunder in which I, too, was about to participate, for although I did pay plenty to acquire a modest subset of the cache, I did so with a thrill of complicit transgression.
The paintings are ex-votos, meaning “from the vow made” or “in gratitude, devotion.” From the mid-eighteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, they hung behind church altars alongside sanctified retablos, portraits of saints. Unlike the static retablos, however, 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.
I learned later that such piles of ex-votos are not unusual. They proliferate and fall like autumn leaves. They pass from artist to church to vendor, often without any documentation of the journey. Church walls are finite, while human suffering and expressions of faith have no end. Diego Rivera wrote, “The anguish of our people caused this strange flowering of painted ex-votos to rise up slowly against the walls of our churches”. In the ex-votos he found uniquely Mexican analogies to medieval art, Henri Rousseau, and Mayan frescos—folk art with deep roots. He and Frida Kahlo led the way in collecting these “masterpieces on tin.” -Rosamond Purcell VQR