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Ricardo Fernández Gracia, Director of the Chair of Navarrese Heritage and Art.

Exvotos, a lost religiosity

Fri, 03 Mar 2017 13:12:00 +0000 Published in Navarra Newspaper

The last decades of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century were times when some of the so-called "popular" arts suffered very bad luck, as they did not enjoy social consideration, nor were they valued by specialists. If to this we add that, in some cases such as the votive offerings, without taking into account all their values, they were judged as expressions of an outdated religiosity that had to be overcome, the consequence was their loss and destruction almost in their entirety. The few that we preserve today, are witnesses of some uses and customs that have disappeared, which serve us as sources for the knowledge of our past.

Until recently, it has not begun to value and therefore to study and exhibit all the heritage linked to popular religiosity, represented by holy cards, votive offerings, small chapels, medals, scapulars, candles, measures of famous images and an endless number of elements that, at most, were only kept in ethnographic or traditional popular museums.

The main purpose of the votive offerings was undoubtedly to express gratitude, but also to leave report and to remember the event, thus contributing to the fame of the intercessor, generating emotions and reactions in those who contemplated the votive offering. As Freedberg has written, the fact of making a promise to an image, in moments of desperation, implied a commitment on the one hand and hopes on the other, in a direct relationship between the solution of the problem and the creation of the icon, as well as the conviction that gratitude would reach the divinity in this way.


Painted votive offerings

Some regions already have catalogs of painted votive offerings, and they have even been the subject of temporary exhibitions, as in La Rioja (1997). Their study and exhibition have served to make society aware of their importance, as well as to intervene in them, with restorations that have prevented them from being lost forever.

Ex voto is a Latin expression that means fulfillment of a vow offered to a divinity or supernatural being in gratitude for a favor received. There is a great variety of votive offerings: wax figures that reproduce parts of the human body, crutches, casts, clothes, braids, letters, weapons, drawings, medals, shackles, decorations... etc. Here we will refer to a typology: the painted votive offerings in which the donor chooses painting as a vehicle of expression to refer to the prodigy or supernatural event. Their dimensions are usually medium-sized, in vertical format. They measure around 75 cm. in height and 50 cm. in width, although there is no lack of larger ones.

In Navarre we have counted twenty-nine painted votive offerings, most of them in a poor state of preservation. The oldest is that of the Aznar sisters of Cintruénigo, dated 1659 and not 1699, as has been repeated. Most of them belong to the 18th century. In this subject of painting we do not find special values of artistic creation, because in most cases there were neither painters capable of making a good portrait, nor did the commissioners have the means to pay high amounts. Except for the portrait of a child with St. Francis Xavier in the Museum of Navarre, which we attributed in its day to the Aragonese Pablo Rabiella, the rest are works of greater anthropological interest, which help to understand the mentalities of past centuries, as well as some very common practices of traditional and popular religiosity. Only one is signed, in 1793, by Diego Díaz del Valle and another was done by the painter established in Tudela, José Eleicegui, in 1739.


The protagonists, the themes and the setting

Among the votive offerings, those of a particular nature and those of a collective nature stand out for having affected a community or a locality. The social belonging to different strata is evident in the objects of furniture and especially in the clothing of the protagonists, as well as in the use of the "don" in the registration. Regarding age, eighteen belong to children, six to adults, three to collective groups and two to young people. This gave a unifying message to society by proclaiming that all people were subject to illnesses and accidents and that heavenly protectors were needed to free them from these contingencies. The divine benefit through the intervention of saints and Marian invocations was achieved through devotions and alms to the sanctuaries.

As for the speech, the painted votive offerings have, in addition to the divine dimension, a textual representation with a registration and an earthly one, with the portrait of the victim and sometimes also a scene with more characters and a specific setting of the disease or accident.

The composition or structuring of the space in those we have located is very varied. Most of them are in a timeless environment, with neutral or dark backgrounds where only the portrait of the donor stands out. In some cases the image to which the intercession was requested is also painted, generally in the upper margins. The narrative text is never missing, with the name and date of the event, almost always framed in a cartouche. The fact that the texts are long is due to clarify what is painted, but also to the intention of magnifying the event. Exceptional for its setting is an ex-voto of the Yugo de Arguedas, from 1696, which represents the interior of a house of Esteban de Cegama, the king's accountant, whose wife was healed after invoking the Virgin of the Yugo. The canopied bed, the altar with its dais, the bedroom, the paintings of Soledad and the landscapes, together with the royal portrait and the mirror, are an excellent example of what the interiors of the Court houses were like in the time of Charles II.


Children with religious habits and amulets

Within the group, the group of children stands out for its issue, with an important presence of eighteen out of a total of twenty-nine that we know of, located in Pamplona, Puente la Reina, Cascante, Estella, Cintruénigo, Codés and above all, in Santa Felicia de Labiano.

Gemma Cobo, in studying the votive offerings of children in eighteenth-century Spain, recalls that they provide information on emotions and affections, spaces, clothing and traditions of childhood, as well as their own codes of representation. On the other hand, they provide information on public and private devotional practices, as well as on the thaumaturgic beliefs of the images and data on the spread of certain diseases.

The abundance of child examples can be explained by the lack of protection of that sector of society in which there was a great mortality, which caused uncertainty, anguish and impotence and motivated the relatives to seek divine protection, offering vows that entailed wearing a religious habit or carrying medals and other religious signs, as well as paying for the ex-voto.

Some children wear religious habits: Dominicans, Trinitarians, Franciscans and Minims of San Francisco de Paula. The habit was used as a prophylactic means or as a result of a promise made by the parents, before the birth, so that the infant would be born without problems. Likewise, it was used to overcome the experiences of a bad delivery or to heal from a certain illness, already after the birth.

Regarding amulets, it is usual to find them hanging from belts next to crosses -sometimes of those used for exorcisms-, medals, reliquaries, gospels, rules of religious orders or other documents subject. Their presence has much to do with the protection of children and particularly against the evil eye. The Countess D'Aulnoy, in her Relación del viaje de España (1679-1680), explains it as a kind of poison that certain eyes have, which is discharged at the first glance. The use of amulets consisted in using them to make the aojador divert his attention, since his poison would be discharged without affecting the child. Thus, the badger's claw, with its multiple hairs, served to entertain the charmer, who would be imprisoned in them, forced to count them.

The most common of the amulets is the bell, which warded off evil spirits. It is followed by a badger's claw, set in silver, to defend against evil. We also find chestnuts, suckers, figs, perfumers and bells. The chestnut, also set in silver, was used against erysipelas, hemorrhoids and rheumatism, so it was worn by children and adults. The glass sucker was attributed the preservation of eye diseases and harmful looks. The figs or closed fists were recognized as beneficial and protective action to ward off diseases. They were made, preferably in jet, crystal or coral, and in their absence by black glass, red paste or bone, respectively. The shells, by evoking the waters where they are formed, participated in the symbolism of fertility proper to water; they were carried by children as protection and by women to propitiate conception.

As for the perfumer, it should be remembered that the use of pomas or pomanders was an elegant and striking solution, not only as an ornament, but also for the senses, as the wearer benefited from its aromatic effects and at the same time it was believed to preserve against diseases and other people's ills. Regarding the bells and rattles, it should be remembered that they entertained and identified children, also acting as a prophylactic attribute, transmitting strength and courage to them.



Caparroso, Luquin and, above all, Sangüesa have some votive offerings of a group of people or a locality saved from catastrophes in shipwrecks or plagues. The one from Caparroso narrates, in a naive way, an event that took place in 1701. sample a boat crowded with thirteen men of different conditions, judging by their clothes, three others already in the water and all of them commending themselves to the Virgin of Soto, who appears with shining lights in the sky, next to the primitive Shrine of Our Lady of Fair Love.

In the basilica of the Virgins of the Remedy and the Miracle of Luquin, there is a painting of a ship adrift with its captain Don Pedro de Colmenares, in 1794, saved by intercession of the holders of that temple. From the end of the XVIII century is the ex-voto of the city of Sangüesa that picks up an event happened the previous century, concretely in 1687 and 1688, when San Francisco Javier freed the city of the plague of the locust. The people judged as miraculous the disappearance of the dreaded plague by the intervention of the Jesuit saint and the fact remained very present in the collective conscience. The canvas represents the procession with the saint in procession, accompanied by the town council and municipal authorities.


Multiple and varied accidents

Among the accidents narrated in some votive offerings, those of Sangüesa, Lerín, Cintruénigo and Arguedas stand out for the spectacular nature of the event. The first of them, dates from the end of the XVIII century although it picks up an event of centuries before and has been studied meticulously by Juan Cruz Labeaga. It relates the legendary miracle of a knight, who was saved from certain death, invoking the Virgin of Rocamador, because, cornered in the bridge of Sangüesa, he threw himself into the river to avoid being captured, moment in which the patron saint of Sangüesa interceded, freeing him from the misfortune.

In Lerín, a naive painting recalls the fall without fatal consequences from the tower of the parish church of Pedro Ibiricu, on the day of the Virgin of Pilar in 1709, while he was watching a bullfighting spectacle that was taking place in the place. In Cintruénigo a canvas from a private collection of 1739, published by F. J. Alfaro, represents the miraculous salvation, thanks to the Immaculate, of Don Pedro Andrés Monreal crossing the river Alhama, on horseback, from his farm of La Cebolluela. Finally, in the sanctuary of the Yugo, another painting sample the gratitude of a quail hunter, Don Diego Martín de Ciga who, in 1719, survived the explosion of his shotgun.


Some achieved notoriety

Some of the portraits, with the passage of time would achieve notoriety for different circumstances. Thus the child Juan Martín Andrés, dressed as a Trinitarian of the Shrine of Our Lady of Fair Love of Santa Felicia de Labiano, whose ex-voto dates from 1739, represents the future sculptor who became position of the altarpiece of the chapel of the Virgen del Camino. Juan Martín Andrés (1737-1790) was the son of the carpenter Juan Antonio Andrés, a native of Cuebas de Cañada in Aragón and María Antonia Roldán and was born in 1737, so in the ex-voto he is just over two years old. In 1760 he obtained the degree scroll of assembler and, among his works, the mentioned altarpiece of the chapel of the Virgen del Camino in San Cernin de Pamplona (1766-73), the one of San Lorenzo de Tafalla and the greater one of Subiza stand out.

    In the Romero de Cascante is preserved the one of Sebastián de Baños, dated in 1749, at the age of nine. The portrayed person is dressed in eighteenth-century style, with a colorful flowered jacket and red coat, kneeling before the image of the Virgin. In the registration his parents, Juan de Baños y Arellano and Francisca Manrique y Almanza, both from Corella, and the reason for the votive offering, in this case, smallpox that endangered his life, are noted. His family, a native of Jaca, had been favored by the princess Catalina and owned the chapel of Santa Ubaldesca in the Merced de Corella. Don Sebastián was a relative of the Saint official document, he rehabilitated the above mentioned executoria, in 1776, and was mayor of Corella in 1797.

    Finally, we will mention another votive offering from the sanctuary of Codés, in this case the work of the Cascantino painter Diego Díaz del Valle, who painted it signature in 1793. In it appears next to a rich rococo console the girl María Luisa Acedo y González de Castejón, at five years of age, for having been freed from a serious illness the previous year. The girl was born in 1787 in Mirafuentes, and a few years later she married Don Vicente de Eulate y Tobía (1771-1838) of the Royal Company of Midshipmen, lord of several majorships, frigate captain and lieutenant of the Royal Navy.