Studying Votives Across Cultures

This short reflective essay formed part of a 2017 collection on Votives: Material Culture and Religion, edited by Ittai Weinryb for Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art and Beliefs.

The other essays in the collection addressed Islamic, Catholic, and Buddhist and Shinto offerings.

It was a rainy Saturday in August. I’d driven up to a mountain sanctuary in the northern Italian region of Trentino on the trail of two hundred wooden votive tavolette dedicated to the Madonna di Pinè, which I’d heard about from an elderly parishioner in Trento. Entering the church, I found it silent and empty except for the priest, who listened kindly while I explained the purpose of my visit. He shook his head, led me into a side room, and gestured at the empty walls: “They took them away a while ago for an exhibition. They promised they’d bring them back.”

Left alone in the room, looking at the plastic chairs stacked up around the walls, I reflected on the panels’ absence. The outcome of my trip had been disappointing but not entirely surprising: after all, votives have always been mobile objects, and have always been transported into different places at some point after their dedication by the worshipper. In Greco-Roman antiquity, this place was often a purpose-dug pit, into which votive offerings were ‘tidied’ at regular intervals. This activity created room so that new offerings could be dedicated, and also had the function of keeping the old offerings within the ownership of the god or goddess. As such, these buried votives became an unseen but still-perceived part of the sanctuary’s fabric. In contemporary Catholicism, the more valuable votive gifts are often sold on to raise funds for the church, sometimes at the dedicant’s explicit request. And of course, thousands of votives have ended up in museums, where they might languish in storerooms, or hang in a permanent display, or alternatively be shuffled around periodically into new temporary exhibitions.

Figure 1: Installation view of the 2016 exhibition  Per Grazie Ricevute: la devozione religiosa a Pompei antica e moderna (For graces received: religious devotion in ancient and modern Pompeii). Courtesy of the Archaeological Soprintendenza of Pompeii.

Figure 1: Installation view of the 2016 exhibition Per Grazie Ricevute: la devozione religiosa a Pompei antica e moderna (For graces received: religious devotion in ancient and modern Pompeii). Courtesy of the Archaeological Soprintendenza of Pompeii.

These last – the temporary exhibitions – have a close and reciprocal relationship with academic scholarship on votives, and often point towards new ways of approaching the material. For instance, it turned out that the tavolette from the Madonna di Pinè sanctuary had been displayed in the museum exhibition alongside more recent photographic ex-votos from the site, allowing for (and indeed prompting) an investigation of change over time. This juxtaposition also raised broader questions about the relationship between medium and message, and provided fresh evidence for a question often debated by Material Religion scholars – that is, how do changing technologies alter the way that people experience the divine? Further south, another exhibition in the Antiquarium of Pompeii brought ‘pagan’ votive offerings into a shared space with ex votos from the nearby Catholic shrine of the Blessed Madonna of the Rosary (Figure 1). Visitors moved through two rooms of Catholic votives, including painted panels, coral necklaces and silver body parts, then travelled downstairs/back in time to contemplate a series of Roman figurines and model body parts. The display panels highlighted areas of potential continuity and change, but the text raised as many questions as it answered: “What emerges is a strong parallelism that, despite historical and religious differences, replicates a ritual and ‘language’ of votive offerings that are identical in form but have substantially different meanings that it is important to emphasize.”

It seems very likely that these basic questions about change and continuity will remain central to academic research on votives in future years, especially given the willingness of Material Religion scholars to talk across conventional discipline and period boundaries. Anthropological approaches can highlight the cultural specificity of practices across time and space; meanwhile, cognitive psychology and neuroscience are providing new avenues into the ‘problem’ of shared experiences within and across votive religions. Ancient historians can make careful use of all these tools: so, anthropological approaches can help us to understand how classical votives fit alongside other ways of honouring the gods, such as prayer, animal sacrifice, and human initiation rituals, while a more nuanced understanding of the Senses (to name just one relevant area of cognitive research) can help us (tentatively) reconstruct how these Greco-Roman objects looked, felt, smelled, and thereby signified to the people who first made and used them.

Further exciting developments are taking place in the realm of digital technology, and it is easy to imagine how statistical tools such as cluster analysis might help us discover new and meaningful patterns in our votive data. Think of the wooden tavolette of Europe and Latin America, or the anatomical votives scattered across the ancient Greco-Roman world. The classification of these large data sets has often been seen as a dreary task with few tangible benefits. However, computer-aided analysis can alert us to patterns that would be otherwise imperceptible to the human eye, generating new knowledge about the production of objects and the dissemination of iconographic themes. We can ascribe multiple tags to every object we work with, and classify and re-classify our data at the press of a computer key. As with other approaches, the scale of analysis is of vital importance here, and votives research will surely benefit from a multi-level, collaborative approach which includes not just the detailed art-historical study of single objects or the archaeological reconstruction of single sanctuary assemblages, but also the comparative study of votives from two or more contexts, and even the broadest imaginable ‘panoramic’ exploration of votives from around the whole world (with all the challenges of definition and translation that such an endeavour would involve).

Figure 2. Painted ex-voto from the church of the Madonna del Carmine in Naples.Dedicated in 1926 by Maria Sannino. Used with kind permission of Carlo Raso.

Figure 2. Painted ex-voto from the church of the Madonna del Carmine in Naples.Dedicated in 1926 by Maria Sannino. Used with kind permission of Carlo Raso.

Ultimately, it is this continuous shifting of scales that will deepen our understanding of votive offerings, helping us to understand the significance of the single object in the light of its relation to the larger tradition. I end these reflections with the image of one votive tablet (Figure 2) from the church of the Madonna del Carmine – that great Neapolitan basilica which is home to the much-loved icon of the Madonna Bruna. A stylised image of this Madonna appears in most of the votive panels displayed in the church – she is recognisable from the colours of her vestments and her crown, and from the way she holds the infant Christ tenderly to her cheek. In most cases she floats high above the rest of the scene, separated from quotidian ‘reality’ by a painted cloud and several inches of flat wooden background. But this particular tavoletta, dedicated by a woman named Maria Sannino in 1926, shows the Madonna standing right next to the patient’s bedside, occupying the spot that is normally filled by a physician or relative. This image of proximity and connection gains much of its impact from comparison with the other panels in the room – and in fact with panels from all across Italy, in which the visual separation of the ‘saintly’ and the ‘everyday’ is the norm. It may be the case that every votary at the Madonna del Carmine felt the close presence of the Virgin in their lives. But Maria Sannino expressed this differently, by painting herself into the presence of the Madonna. And when I visited that church last month, it was her votive that made me stop and stare.