This short essay was first published on the Material Religions blog. With thanks to Urmila Mohan for editorial help.
MLA citation format:
Hughes, Jessica. "Immaterial Religion – Yves Klein’s Ex-voto to St Rita of Cascia." Web blog post. Material Religions. 7 Jan. 2015. [date of access]
The convent of Saint Rita di Cascia, set deep in the Umbrian hills, was one of the last places visited by Yves Klein before his early death in 1962. Klein was a pioneering French artist whose work often explored the relationship between the ritualised creative act and the material ‘relics’ of this process – whether these took the form of sculptures, films, photographs or paintings. Klein had made pilgrimages to Cascia on two previous occasions, but on this third and final trip he brought a special gift for Saint Rita – a small plexiglass box containing three tiny gold ingots and an incandescent triptych of rose, gold, and IKB (International Klein Blue) pigment. The handwritten dedication in the centre of the box proclaimed Klein’s gratitude to St Rita, and his desire to secure her continued protection.
“Saint Rita of Cascia, patron of impossible and desperate cases, thank you for all the powerful, decisive, marvellous help that you have given me up to now. Infinite thanks. Even if I am personally unworthy, help me again and always and in my art and protect everything that I have created so that independently of me it should always be of Great Beauty.”—Yves Klein, excerpt from “Prayer to Saint Rita,” February 1961
The rediscovery of the Ex-voto to St Rita in the convent’s storehouse in 1980 delighted Klein fans and scholars – understandably so, since the box opened a window onto one of the most enigmatic personalities of twentieth-century art. And when the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis staged a retrospective show of Klein’s work in 2010, the Ex-voto was given pride of place.
“Actually, I like to joke that it would have almost been enough to have just the Ex-voto as the entire exhibition. On its own, it’s kind of a mini-exhibition of Yves Klein’s work: all of the elements are there, and it shows a commitment to the colors that he has always used, including the gold.”
Curator Philippe Vergne’s comments here draw out the ‘metonymic’ qualities of the Ex-voto to St Rita – that is, the object’s ability to function as a condensed biography, an exhibition-in-miniature. In this respect, Klein’s offering recalls the form of older votive objects, which also draw on concepts of essence, fragmentation and miniaturisation. In classical antiquity, votives were widely understood to be pars pro toto or ‘part for the whole’ symbols of their dedicants, and they often took a fragmentary form (we might think of the ubiquitous models of body parts, or the offerings of human hair attested in the literary sources). In this case, the gold ingots and samples of coloured pigment represent Klein’s major artistic works, pars pro toto.
Besides its familiar aesthetic of fragmentation, other semi-traditional features of Klein’s votive include the juxtaposition of written text and visual image, the evocation of sacred forms like the triptych and reliquary, and the use of materials with high economic value. Ancient Greco-Roman offerings were often made of precious metals, including gold, which enabled the transfer of significant wealth to the deity. In Klein’s case, the gold had extra symbolic weight on account of its earlier role in his work Zones of Immaterial Sensibility. From 1956 onwards, Klein had sold ‘zones’ of empty space in exchange for gold ingots. He gave his buyers receipts, which they then solemnly burnt; in turn, Klein would ritually dispose of half the gold he had earned, by throwing it into rivers or oceans, or, in this case, by transferring ownership to St Rita.
“In case the buyer wishes this act of integration of the work of art with himself to take place, Yves Klein must, in the presence of an Art Museum Director, or an Art Gallery Expert, or an Art Critic, plus two witnesses, throw half of the gold received in the ocean, into a river, or in some place in nature where this gold cannot be retrieved by anyone.”
While Zones of Immaterial Sensibility provided the raw materials for the Ex-voto to St Rita, it might be argued that the relationship worked the other way too – in other words, that Zones absorbed and embodied aspects of the votive tradition. Certainly, the Zones transactions were highly ritualised performances, which were presided over by the ‘high priests’ of contemporary art. The act of throwing gold into the Seine also recalls the dedication of thousands of offerings in watery contexts all across ancient Gaul. Some participants remember the transactions as a quasi-mystical experience. Daniel Moquay, Director of the Yves Klein archives in Paris, described a conversation he had with Michael Blankfort, who purchased one of the Zones shortly before Klein’s death:
“He said…I’m a collector, I have a lot of different pieces, but let me tell you something (and he wrote it in the catalogue of his show at LACMA) of my experience of a collector. There are three pieces that I would cherish and remember forever. One of those three are the ‘Immaterial’ that I received from Yves Klein, which has been accompanying me all over the world, all the time. I carry it with me. I’ve been thinking about it. Plus, I was told that when we did that, the bell of Notre Dame (which is very close to where they are on the Seine), was ringing. I can tell you that I did not hear anything. I was so involved into it, and this involvement – I still feel it today.”
Yves Klein’s Ex-voto to St Rita is a complex and utterly unique work, but at the same time it raises certain themes that hold true for all different types of votive offerings. Firstly, it reminds us that votives always need to be viewed in relation to wider artistic trends, even when these trends appear to lay beyond the boundaries of what is sacred. In this case, the Ex-voto is embroiled in a dialogue with another of Klein’s works, the Zones of Immaterial Sensibility, which hinges on very similar ideas of transaction, belief and ritualised deposition. Recognising the overlaps between these two works enhances our understanding of both of them, and helps us to see how the Ex-voto (despite its unique qualities) fits organically into the rest of Klein’s oeuvre. Then, the Ex-voto to St Rita also demonstrates how the sculptural material in which a votive is made can add an extra dimension to the dialogue between dedicant and deity. Here we have focused on the gold and its origins in the Zones, but the blue and rose pigments and even the plexiglass link the Ex-voto to other contemporary objects, ideas and techniques, all of which imbued the offering with extra layers of meaning.
Famously, Yves Klein saw his paintings and sculptures as the mere ‘ashes’ of his true, immaterial artworks, and this notion could perhaps also be applied to the votives that we find on display in churches and sanctuaries. Few people would deny that votive offerings are precious historical documents which allow us a privileged and authentic insight into the past. But at the same time, these objects are only ever the ‘ashes’ of a ritual which has left no permanent traces – a ritual which had the power to drown the sound of bells, and whose memory the dedicant carried with them forever.
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Hughes, J. (2008) ‘Fragmentation as Metaphor in the Classical Healing Sanctuary’. Social History of Medicine 21.2: 217-236.
Bailey, D. (2005) Prehistoric Figurines: Corporeality and Representation in the Neolithic, London and New York, Routledge.
Graham, E-J. (forthcoming) ‘Partible Humans and Permeable Gods: Enacting Human-Divine Personhood in the Sanctuaries of Hellenistic Italy’, in J. Draycott and E-J. Graham (eds.) Bodies of Evidence: Redefining Approaches to the Anatomical Votive, Aldershot, Ashgate.
Pazzini, A. (1935) ‘Il significato degli ‘ex voto’ ed il concetto della divinità guaratrice.’ RAL 6.11: 42-79.