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Psalm 49:14-15 “Offer to God the sacrifice of praise: and pay thy vows to the most High.
And call upon me in the day of trouble:
I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me.”
Votive offerings (a.k.a. “votives” and “ex-votos”) are actions or material things vowed to God (or promised to a Saint for their intercession with God) in return for a hoped-for miracle, offered in thanksgiving for already-answered prayer, or given in thanksgiving for blessings not asked for. They can take the form of pieces of art, tokens, the lighting of candles, offering flowers, among many others.
Art votives can range from the humble to the resplendent; great artists have made votives — by their own volition or at the commission of wealthy patrons — of statues, paintings, hymns, stained glass — even entire churches or shrines have been given “ex voto.” Usually, paintings and other artworks offered ex voto depict the miracles for which the votive is being offered, and many bear the intials “VFGA” which stand for the Latin “Votum Fecit Gratiam Accepit” — “Vow made, graces received,” simply “E.V.” for “Ex Voto” (“in fulfillment of a vow”), or some vernacular equivalent.
In Mexico, ex-voto artworks — almost always painted on tin sheets since the 19th century — are extremely popular and usually include not only an artistic depiction of the blessings concerned and the Heavenly intercessor who helped make it happen, but a section of text at the bottom that describes the event in words. The works are taken to churches and publicly displayed to act as a witness to God’s power and to give Him thanks. 1 So popular are ex-voto paintings in Mexico, that the walls of some churches are literally covered with them. Here is an Italian ex-voto depicting a shooting accident from which the victim recovered and gave thanks to God:
As said, ex-votos need not be painted artworks; they can be much more fanciful. For example, on his wedding day, the English King Henry III offered a gold statue of his bride at the shrine of St. Edward, and King Edward III left a model of a ship at his father’s tomb when he was spared from a shipwreck. One can find many such ships left by sailors through the centuries in the churches of coastal towns.
Wax candles as tall as the one healed were often given to churches in return for God’s blessings — and bread, cheese, or grain equal in weight to that of a sick child were once common votives given to the the poor in return for the same. A particular example of the latter took place in A.D. 1263, when a child drowned near the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua as it was still being built. The mother prayed to St. Anthony for his intercession and promised that if her child were restored to life, she would give to the poor an amount of wheat equal to the weight of her child. Of course her son was saved, and her promise was kept. “St. Anthony’s Bread,” then, is a votive of giving alms in return for a favor asked of God through St. Anthony’s intercession. The giving of St. Anthony’s Bread takes place on the great Saint’s feast (13 June), and also throughout the year when parents give alms after placing their babies under the patronage of St. Anthony.
Crippled people bring their crutches and wheelchairs to the shrines of Saints who’ve interceded in their healing, and certain shrines have become known for being places where Saintly intercession is especially powerful, such as the miraculous healings at Lourdes, healings at shrines devoted to St. Anthony, happy childbirths granted after praying before the statue of “Madonna del Parto” (Our Lady of Childbirth) in the Church of Sant’Agostino in Rome or at the shrine of the infant Jesus in the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli. Many healings have been granted after praying at the Basilica of Ste. Anne de Beaupré in Canada; the picture below shows almost sculpturesque collections of crutches left at St. Anne’s Canadian shrine after healings.
The Most Common Votives
Ex voto offerings most often take the form of the lighting of candles, the placing of flowers or pictures before icons, and leaving thank-you notes, money, or little tokens on or near the altars or statues of Saints in churches, shrines, or family altars.
This last — the leaving of little tokens — is most common in Mediterranean cultures (Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain) and the cultures they gave rise to, especially Mexico. These tokens (known in Spanish as “milagros” meaning “miracles,” or as “promesas”) can be made of anything — paper, wax, bone, wood, silver, tin, copper, bronze, gold (the inexpensive metals are the most common nowadays) — and almost always take shapes that symbolize the miracle one is seeking or for which one is offering thanks. For example, if one has bad eyes, an ex-voto depicting eyes is taken to a church — especially to a church dedicated to St. Lucy, Patroness of those with eye problems — or is placed on one’s home altar near a statue or other icon of the Saint being besought or thanked. These ex-votos are pinned to clothing that may adorn a statue, and are nailed onto wooden crosses, into ornate shadow boxes, and onto frames holding holy pictures. They are also pinned to ribbons that hang in shrines and around family altars just for this purpose, and are often accompanied by thank-you notes to God and His Saints.
Ex-votos of this type can be shaped like body parts, people, animals, crops, household objects, houses, cars, boats, etc., and can be homemade, specially commissioned, or bought from religious vendors. Their symbology can be straightforward, or more metaphorical; for example, a dog-shaped charm can represent one’s own pet — or “faithfulness.” A sampling of this sort of ex-voto is below:
Note that some people mistakenly use this sort of ex-voto as talismans, a superstitious act that has no place in our holy religion. They can have secular purposes, for sure, such as for use in jewelry, or for decoration, souvenirs, trading, or collecting, but any magical thinking attached to them is not Catholic thinking. While the use of such items as these as offerings to what is alleged to be divine is extremely ancient (Neolithic!) and found in many false religions and in many cultures of the ancient world (Sumerian, Phoenician, African, Greek, Roman, Aztec), it is also a practice ordained by the true God in Old Testament times —
I Kings 6:5, 11
According to the number of the provinces of the Philistines you shall make five golden emerods [boils or blains], and five golden mice: for the same plague hath been upon you all, and upon your lords. And you shall make the likeness of your emerods, and the likeness of the mice that have destroyed the land, and you shall give glory to the God of Israel: to see if he will take off his hand from you, and from your gods, and from your land… And they laid the ark of God upon the cart, and the little box that had in it the golden mice and the likeness of the emerods.
— and by His Church in this dispensation.
The lighting of candles is likely the most common form of ex-voto in the English-speaking West. Most churches have rows of tall, glass-encased votive candles that you can light while offering a prayer. There will be a place to put a few coins to help offset the cost of the candles you light (these days, a dollar or two is a fair amount to leave for lighting a candle), and matches will be found nearby for you to use. A good prayer to pray when lighting votive candles and after making your intentions (i.e., formalizing what it is you’re beseeching or thanking God for) is this one, which makes clear the idea of the candle representing your prayers as ongoing as long as it continues to burn:
O Lord, may I be present in this candle, which consumes itself before you.
It’s a very Catholic thing to tell someone, “I’ll light a candle for you,” which means that you’ll pray for them while offering the ex-voto of lighting a candle for them in church.
“Retablos,” often confused with ex-voto paintings, are sacred paintings also made on tin, but which are not taken to churches, their being kept on family altars instead (the word comes from the Latin “retro tablua,” meaning “behind the altar.”) “Santos” are retablos that depict Saints. “Laminas” refers to the sheets of tin that all of these types of paintings are made with, and is a word used to describe the paintings themselves.