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Ex-vote phenomenon

The former vote is an expression of religiosity, art and popular culture. Here the language of a "sacred people" is manifested, which gathers, independently of the social classes of belonging, the faith, suffering and the request of grace of all humanity: the oldest expressions of votive art were born in the educated field, beside, but not opposed, to 'poor' forms of ex-voto.

The extrapolation of the former vote from its "natural" location, the Sanctuary, may seem like a gamble: every specimen is in fact a mosaic tile displayed on the walls of the sacred building, it is the small part of a more complex and complex whole . But it is also true that every single painting narrates with extraordinary force a personal story that, precisely because it is entrusted with devotion to the sacred place, is charged with other valences and becomes a testimony of grace, a cry of praise to divinity and grateful prayer.

 

The former vote in antiquity

The offer of votive gifts responds to the primordial need of man to evade a feared evil by resorting to occult forces (magical practices) or by propitiating the deities with the promise of a gift and gratitude for a received benefit (religious thought). The practice of donating small votive statues to deities is attested in Mesopotamia and in Egypt.

Evidences of votive customs can also be found in the Greek, Etruscan, Roman and Celtic periods. Archaeological and literary sources (Cicero, Orazio, Tibullo) document the tradition of Etruscan and Roman "donaria": three-dimensional figurations in different materials depicting whole bodies, single parts or particular organs, offered to deities as pledge or gratitude. Next to the former anatomical vows, among the Greeks and Romans, the first offers of painted tablets ("pinakes" or "pictae tabe") dedicated to "Isis Maris Stella" and to Esculapio appear.

 
The former vote in Christianity

The pagan tradition of the former vows is assimilated by the Christian religion. In the Middle Ages the use of wax images prevailed over the centuries thanks to the importance that this material plays in the exercise of worship. In Italy around the fifteenth century is defined the iconographic model of the painted tablet that spreads later also in European and Latin American Catholic countries. In the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the practice of the former vote painted on table or other material (lamina, paper, canvas, etc.) becomes preponderant. The ex ~ painted vow associates the function of dissolution of the vow to that of widening the cult through visual communication: the painted image, exposed on the walls of the Sanctuary, tells, witnesses, divulges and involves the whole community.

In this sense it can be consulted as a document rich in historical information, customs and traditions of the past.

In the Catholic sphere different forms of ex-voto are classified:

Not materials: bound, novenas, triduums, masses, pilgrimages, fasts.

Materials: Depictional (three-dimensional reproduction of human figures, heads, anatomical parts, animals, boat models, work tools, buildings, cities, shrines, altars, embroidered tables, graffiti, paintings on canvas, canvas, foil, glass, paper, cardboard, ceramics, paintings and frescoes on the walls of chapels or private houses, reliefs in embossed silver or other material, oleographs, photographs);

Symbolic (hearts, braids, candles, multicolored ribbons, small cassocks, bunches of ears);

Circumstances (concretely related to the event that called for the vote: crutches, orthopedic appliances, sticks, weapons, military uniforms, flags, clothing and various personal items, hawsers, work tools);

Gifts (jewels, rosaries, reliquaries, amulets tied in silver, fabrics, lamps, objects intended for worship, vestments and sacred furnishings, animals);

Buildings (churches, chapels, newsagents, altars).

 

Divine and land

In the former painted vow, the narrative structure is composed of: explanation of the supernatural salvific power, the negative event, the epilogue and the thanksgiving. The salvific intervention comes either from the Madonna or from Jesus or from the patron saints, recognizable by their own iconography, which are in the celestial or divine sphere always positioned in the upper part of the image. The celestial character is isolated from a cloud or a complex of clouds that allows the pictorial connection between the celestial space, the seat of the divine, and the earthly space, the scene of humanity.

Often in the votive paintings of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries the celestial characters are no longer placed in their "sphere", but imagined on a support within the scene, now on an altar in the church (often in the Sanctuary), now on in 'newsstand, now on a picture hanging on the wall of the room. This solution annuls the separation between the divine sphere and the earthly scene.

The part of the image not occupied by the celestial sphere is reserved for the representation of the negative event (diseases, accidents, assaults, wars, shipwrecks, etc.). The situation of extreme danger, in which the devotee found himself, is portrayed by the painter with the maximum evidence and clarity in his dramatic appearance. The gestures, attitudes, expressions of the characters involved in the event must be strongly marked immediately understandable. The landscape can faithfully present the place of action or simply evoke it. In the representation of an interior, objects are introduced to provide sufficient references to its recognition.

The positive solution of the event is almost never represented in the image, but only intuitive. The protagonist of the bidder appears in the portrait of himself kneeling, with his hands clasped and his eyes turned to the sky. He wears the dress of the party, as a sign of celebration of the positive outcome and respect for the divine protector who thanks.

 

Techniques and materials

The most widespread painting techniques of tempera and oil, on supports such as canvas, table, sheet and glass, are added to those of the pen and watercolor on paper. The collage is mixed with these in the twentieth century, or the figures of Saints and Madonnas and sometimes the faces of the people, which are glued to the painted surface, are cut out from prints or chromolithographed images.

There are also ex-voto cast metal, embossed on silver foil, in molded and painted ceramic, carved in wood or plaster.

A non-pictorial technique used in the ex voto is that of the embroidery of floral motifs, acronyms, dates, words and rarely of the representation of a fact.

In the twentieth century, photography overlaps or replaces the image painted with the objective reproduction of the people pardoned, of the places and of the escaped danger, as in the case of road accidents, giving greater authenticity to the testimony.

 

The silhouettes

The greater investment by the client in the ex-voto painted product can be seen not only in the quantity and quality of the colors, in the accuracy of the shapes drawn, but also in the value of the support, in the dimensions of the painting, in the atypical modeling of the shaping of particularly elaborate tables and frames.

The shaped frame distinguishes and highlights the ex-voto offer of the bidder among the multitude of tablets cut into the simple rectangular shape without a frame, which are exposed in the Sanctuary.

A particular embodiment consists in applying molded and painted strips in an imaginative way on the perimeter of the tablet surface, in order to pretend the presence of a real frame.

 

Style

They are co-present in the Shrines ex-vote in a cultured style, that is performed by professors of the Academy and by professional painters, and in a less elevated style definable "primitive", performed by amateur or improvised painters.

The former, in the secure possession of drawing and painting techniques, create well-structured images in the composition, in which they define the space in respect of three-dimensionality (use of perspective), make the volume of things with the consistent use of chiaroscuro and build the figures demonstrating the knowledge of anatomy.

The latter use the means of artistic language in a particular and limited way, not having received an academic or specific education. In most of the votive paintings, performed by this category, they are identified as distinctive and constant stylistic characteristics: lyric synthesis, simplification, stylization, surface or two-dimensional vision, the subjectivity of certain perspective solutions, the strong accent accent drawing, the allusive, fantastic and dreamlike reference of colors.

The choice between the two categories of performers, and therefore the result of the product, depends on the wealth of the client. All the social components participate in the phenomenon of the former vowel painting, from the nobility to the upper middle classes, ending with the most humble layers of the population.

 

The fakes

In many cases the back of the boards is treated with a dark paint to make the former vote appear older than it is; for the same purpose, holes made in series with the nails can be found to simulate the woodworms. Sometimes the fakes are identified because the representation of the costumes is not consistent with the era indicated on the painting, or because the technique used is too advanced compared to the date of execution declared on the work.

For sale you can also find copies of originals painted on rather old boards, which however betray the false because they are too young compared to the period of attribution of the former vote.

 

The painters

Some painters who perform ex-voto are identifiable as to artistic personalities, but remain anonymous; others know the name and place in which they operated, such as: the Lombard Angelo Ceroni (1861-83), belonging to the category of cultured painters, and the Piedmontese Carlo Cenna (1855-85), belonging to the category of not picked.

The preponderant part of votive paintings is produced by a limited number of specialized painters. One can presumably assume that they belonged to the artisan category of painters, decorators, stuccoers and carvers. There were also wandering painters who followed in their movements the calendar of the great solemnities celebrated in the shrines, ready to quickly exhaust the requests of the pilgrims. The figure of the painter is aligned with that of the painter present at the Sanctuary and operating in the territory, active in a workshop or in a shop. In recent times we note in some Shrines the presence of ex-voto drawn and colored by a family member, relative or friend of the pardoned grateful in possession of some, though minimal, realization capacity.

 

The prefabricated buildings

In order to reduce costs and increase demands, specialized painters operate in such a way that they can be standardized, painting in advance on the support the figures of the patron saint and the offerer, and sometimes even the scene, like the bedroom with the bed the sick. With a few tweaks and additions, the paintings, exposed to the public, are available for all budgets at the time of maximum attendance at the Shrine, during festivals, festivals and pilgrimages.

This solution presents the completely anonymous and depersonalized devotee; this aspect was considered unimportant by many customers.

In the field of standardization we can consider the duplication by means of lithographic printing of recurrent subjects, as devotees in prayer or as sick people in bed and suppliant women, available in shops of sacred objects at convenient prices for customers, who can then add in the same print manually written and colors.

 

Clouds

The painters use very simple and evident forms and graphic schemes to distinguish and separate the earthly sphere from the celestial sphere: the supernatural "high" and the mundane "low".

The cloud is one of these measures and conventions, it can be in the center left to right and in some cases can occupy much of the painting, it is an intentional and instrumental device that allows the pictorial connection between the celestial space and the ground, highlighting however an iconographic model centered on divinity, even when it occupies a limited portion of the scene.

 

The former painted vote

Usually in the ex ~ painted vow the space is divided into two distinct and unequal parts, one dedicated to the divine with the celestial characters in the upper area, the other lower, including the human with the exposition of the fact. The presence of the Madonna is predominated in the oldest votive paintings. The Holy dispensers of graces and intercessors will gradually be joined (in some paintings even four or five). Next to the grateful offerer may appear some witnesses with the priest, the doctor, the lawyer, etc. The inscriptions usually consist of votive abbreviations, dates, the name of the pardon and the painter. Sometimes the former vows contain larger texts, almost small condensed chronicles of the prodigious fact. With the illustrated illustration, the set of writings and acronyms constitutes a sort of narrative and descriptive unit that defines a didactic structure.