Agents of Faith, the catalogue of a recent exhibition staged to mark the 25th anniversary of the foundation of the Bard Graduate Center in New York, is truly a sight to behold. Lavishly illustrated with colour plates, it is an absolute joy to turn pages that open up a complex expression of faith—namely, the desire on the part of the devotee to present something to a deity either in petition or gratitude. In an introductory essay, Ittai Weinryb observes: “Votive offerings can be found throughout human history and around the globe, from archaic Greece to modern times, from the slopes of the Himalayas to the forests of Brazil.”
As a Catholic priest who has spent a number of years ministering at a Marian shrine, I am not unacquainted with the notion of ex-votos as an expression of religious belief. While this exhibition gives full rein to that apparently natural inclination, it widens the genre to include secular objects. There is a particularly poignant section dealing with the offerings left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, where, as the authors of the section acknowledge: “The objects evoke camaraderie, on and off the battlefield.”
Among the hundreds of thousands of artefacts left at the memorial wall are stuffed bears wearing jerseys of Chicago’s rival baseball teams—the Cubs and the White Sox—a bottle of Olde Bourbon and a customised 1994 Harley Davidson motorbike.
An Asian insight portrays dishes set out as food offerings at a temple in the Indian city of Ahmedabad to mark Diwali, and a chapter on votive giving in Islamic societies, while underlining the Koran’s strictures against imagery, has some useful words about the Shia acceptance of the intercession of the prophets and the righteous. The examples of ceramics given here are mainly Iranian, and the depiction of the cenotaph of Imam Reza in Mashhad will come as something of a surprise to those used to thinking of Islamic art in more austere terms. Latin America has its own section, which addresses the participation of the indigenous peoples in Christian practices from the 16th century to the present day. Devotion to the Mexican shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe is widespread among those colonised from the Iberian Peninsula and is represented here in a particularly moving painting dating from 1879 showing the Virgin saving shipwrecked sailors.
For me, the most engaging part of the catalogue is that devoted to German pilgrimage culture, with an emphasis on the Bavarian village of Altötting (much loved by the former pope, Benedict XVI, whose own Marian devotion takes its emotional heart from this tiny chapel). Mitchell B. Merback notes: “On the eve of the Reformation, the southern end of the Holy Roman Empire—Bavaria, Austria, Swabia and Franconia—formed a sacral landscape dense with holy places.” It is a tradition exemplified in the 17th century by a votive painting reproduced here of one Caspar Helmiller asking the Madonna of Hogling for the safe return of his cattle. Each contribution to the catalogue underlines the simple truth that men and women of differing cultures, religions and ages have felt a need to relate to forces beyond themselves by making offerings that can be placatory, intercessory or appreciatory.
Robert Maniura’s Art and Miracle in Renaissance Tuscany offers a cameo supporting the broader point being made in the Bard catalogue. This is a well-researched work with extensive notes and bibliography, though nothing can assuage the disappointment at finding the note, “readers will find the colour plates at the following website…” It would surely have been possible for Cambridge University Press to have reproduced at least some of the illustrations in colour.
The major figure considered here is Giuliano Guizzelmi, born in 1446 to a long-established Prato family. A lawyer by training, his mind turned in later life to his burial place, and the Guizzelmi chapel, in what is now Prato’s cathedral of Saint Stephen, became the focus for his devotional beneficence. In the same building a cult had grown up around a relic said to be the Girdle of the Virgin and the discussion widens into a consideration of the place miracle had in the religious mindset of Renaissance Tuscany. In this context, perhaps the most fascinating details are contained in a list of household expenses drawn up in 1488, in which secular and religious considerations seem to exist in a happy symbiosis. One item includes a votive offering of ten pounds of wax in “the image of Lactantio, my nephew”. Filippo Lippi’s The Funeral of Saint Stephen (which would have been glorious if shown as a colour plate), created between 1452 and 1465 for Prato’s cathedral, is reputed to depict the young Guizzelmi among the mourners—a worthy memorial to a devout and generous benefactor.
Christopher Colven is the Rector of St James’s Roman Catholic Church, Spanish Place, London
- Ittai Weinryb, Agents of Faith: Votive Objects in Time and Place, Yale University Press, 372pp, £55, $75 (hb)
- Robert Maniura, Art and Miracle in Renaissance Tuscany, Cambridge University Press, 276pp, £75, $99.99 (hb)