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- Saint Francisco de Paola floating across the water on his cloak. A saint of good works—charitas bonitas—he is carrying flames against his chest, a physical manifestation of his passion for the word of God.
While visiting a church in Guadalupe in 1917, David Alfaro Siquieros, the great muralist painter of the Mexican Revolution, found, “along with broken candelabras and other typical church adornments,” a “true mountain” of small paintings tossed carelessly on the floor. He picked one up. It was “made of paper . . . painted with colored pencils but especially interesting, perhaps more primitive than the others, almost as if executed by a child.” And, thinking he was doing nothing wrong, he took it. A priest, witnessing the scene, shouted, “Thief!”—and armed sacristans dragged him off to the station.
I did not yet know the story of Siquieros’s theft when, some seventy-five years later in a warehouse in San Francisco, I came across hundreds of Mexican paintings on thin metal sheets showing auto accidents and deathbed scenes, victims and the presiding saints now scratched or rusted into obscurity. The careless piles suggested a great and hasty plunder, rarities snatched from an archeological site. It was a plunder in which I, too, was about to participate, for although I did pay plenty to acquire a modest subset of the cache, I did so with a thrill of complicit transgression.
The paintings are ex-votos, meaning “from the vow made” or “in gratitude, devotion.” From the mid-eighteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, they hung behind church altars alongside sanctified retablos, portraits of saints. Unlike the static retablos, however, each ex-voto narrates a saint in action, intervening in a near-disaster, accident, or illness that befalls ordinary human beings or animals. Each commemorates the miraculous intervention and expresses the gratitude of the survivors or loving families—husbands and wives, parents and children.