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The Stories of Strangers: Mexican Ex-Voto Paintings

ISSUE:  Spring 2008

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.

I learned later that such piles of ex-votos are not unusual. They proliferate and fall like autumn leaves. They pass from artist to church to vendor, often without any documentation of the journey. Church walls are finite, while human suffering and expressions of faith have no end. Priests discarded older ex-votos to make space for new. Eventually they were reinvented by artists and collectors as inspirational artifacts. It was Diego Rivera who first deemed them valuable, preferring to buy rather than to steal them. “The anguish of our people caused this strange flowering of painted ex-votos to rise up slowly against the walls of our churches,” he wrote. In the ex-votos he found uniquely Mexican analogies to medieval art, Henri Rousseau, and Mayan frescos—folk art with deep roots. He and Frida Kahlo led the way in collecting these “masterpieces on tin.”

By the end of the twentieth century, the commercial value of these laminas—or “miracle boards”—soared. Many private collectors and famous museums possess them now, changing the ex-voto from personal spiritual communication between suppliant and saint into the abstract stories of strangers, mere treasure available for a price. But from the time I first shuffled through the rusted, sharp-edged sheets of incomplete and faded narratives, I could see they were more than that.

A solitary woman lights a candle to the Virgin of the Apocalypse as lava rocks rain down.

The tales of life or death told by pictures and written testimonials are bound up with real-life dangerous occurrences and near-fatal moments. Perils include crushings by cars, carts, streetcars; falls into hot tallow; electrocutions; attacks by bulls, wild cats, snakes, rats, and wolves. There are fires and falls, floods, earthquakes, storms and disease. And there are manmade catastrophes as well—attacks by soldiers, bandits, police, and drunken husbands. Operations, with the masked doctors, large oxygen tanks and anesthesia, are as daunting as an alien abduction—full of risk and fear. Expressions of fatalism—se me encimó (it just came down on me, it just happened, it was beyond my control)—resound through out these tales. Every scene of daily life—no matter what or where the drama—is painted as if lifted from a book of magical realism showing two levels of time past. There is the pluperfect—what happened—theft, collision, illness of the flock—and then the more recent past—what happened next—the attentive mercies of the chosen saint, whether floating, ethereal, or descending close as a confidant to reassure the family of the stricken one, like a heavenly healer or a vaporous butterfly in a corner of the room.

These two pasts are blended into one painted scene or, as in medieval paintings of the lives of the saints in which the protagonist appears more than once, the separate chronologies are indicated by a framing device. The legend written beneath the scene of an ex-voto supplies the synopsis for what is often a two-act play: a grim, even catastrophic event, involving the world of mortals, followed by the divine intervention of the proper saint. Even though time passes between the event and intervention, “a miracle,” writes Anita Brenner, the early twentieth-century historian of Mexican art, “is a thing without chronology. A picture is therefore closer to its nature than the story. Even the written information about it on the margin below the painting is not a sequence.”

I’m beguiled by these straightforward captions, believing that through their deceptive specificities—names, places, times (sometimes down to the hour of the day of the year)—the story can be decoded. I want to do my research, my homework; I want to get the miracle straight. The text painted on or scratched into the surface with a stylus is frequently faded to near-obscurity by the time I get my hands on it. The names, cryptified by dialect, effaced by rust, or painted over previous scenes, tell me little more than I can already surmise by studying the painted scenes. Yet, something about the scuffed and scratched surfaces of ex-votos conspires to increase their mysteries. Secreted beneath the multiple strata of revelations contained beneath its skin, I know, there lies the essence of personal despair and redemption.

About 1900 in Mexico City, the horse-drawn tranvia gave way to the electric trolley, leading to a rash of accidents involving horses, bicycles, and pedestrians. This four-part drama shows moments in the life of a young woman struck down by a trolley: first as a devout young girl; second, as a fashionable young woman falling in front of the on-coming trolley; and third, as an unconscious invalid in a four-poster bed attended by a praying woman draped in a black shawl. Each scene is set off in a burnished alcove, like episodes from the life of a saint, but the woman’s fate remains mysterious. The legend, though etched in an elegant hand, has vanished into a script as thin and ineffable as a spider-web.
High above the rolling hills, an androgynous figure in a pink gown raises his sword and glides on the back of a scaly devil. This is the Archangel Michael, not a saint but a deity in charge of justice and of overcoming evil. He has chained his avatar by the wrist and keeps rein over it, rides it. Michael has come to rescue Filemon, a terrified man who, it is written, in 1897, was knocked into the rough waters of the Rio Grande by an errant animal, while his brother was working along the riverside.
To be arrested is a consequence of fate, and a prisoner will claim that he has been unjustly accused, imprisoned by calumny. Prison walls in ex-votos are menacingly high, and, according to Anita Brenner, their bricks form a stark contrast to the warmth of walls made from earth and adobe. Here, three men dressed in the Colonial-style split-leg trousers of cowboys or country farmers seem to have escaped from their prison chains. The men are on their knees to two saints—the first the folk-saint El Niño de Atocha. He is a child with a pilgrim staff who bears a water gourd and never-ending bread for prisoners. The second is the Virgin Mary in one of her manifestations as the Refugio de Pecadores, the Protector of Sinners. The inked inscription on paper is almost rubbed off, the story vanished, but we can see the iron chain has been broken—the men are freed. The miraculous is not reserved for the pious, and apparently these three secured their release by bringing in some heavy-hitters . . .
This is a testament of gratitude. Sr. Catarino Tovar fell ill with bloody dysentery in 1893, and recovered only when his wife, Maria Guadalupe Salazar, offered up a fervent prayer. A year later, this plate was presented to the church in thanks. It pictures Sr. Tovar, draped in a cloak, kneeling before a shrine. The countryside is lush, and a farmhouse stands in the near distance. He is shown going to the place of the spirit rather than—the more common image—the spirit coming to him. The scene is elegiac, and one has to wonder—was he actually there, or only painted as if he were, in order to comfort his wife? Did he survive to thank the spirit, or did he go to the spirit and stay there?
The family members of Bernal Cazares are on their collective knees before the Black Christ, Sr. Araro. It is September 19, 1927, and we are told that something terrible happened the day before. Here, in the city of Guanajuato, it could have been many things, as this town did suffer from a flood, a labor strike, and a civilian massacre at the hands of the military all within this narrow window of time. The possibilities for tragedy are myriad. Perhaps Cazares had been shot. Perhaps he had been in a cave-in in the nearby mines. Softened candle wax has seeped into the blistered paint, and a pencil inscription in the center of the narrative is obscured by a nail-hole and warping of the tin. It’s illegible to the naked eye, but the thin-scratched text yields to the computer scanner and to visual enhancement. Missing letters emerge. The entire family was poisoned, it seems, by sauce made from local mushrooms. I look at the crest of the hill. What is growing there?
On September 15, 1930, in Agua Calientes, nothing happened to the boy Fermin when the rich landowner’s bull broke out of its pen and charged toward him. Fermin fell down. A woman standing nearby saw the planks shatter, the bull rear, and, fearing the boy would be killed, she prayed to the Virgin of Solitude. The virgin whirls in like a helicopter to Fermin, and the bull returns on its own accord to the paddock. Conspicuous on the haunch of the animal is the brand of the owner—a sly way of slipping information into the scene, so that even the illiterate would know just whose bull had almost trampled the boy.
Sr. Genaro Solano, the donor of this ex-voto, did not worship at the sanctuary of the Hacienda of Altistao, but he directed his promesa to its patron saint, Anthony of Padua. He thanked the saint for alleviating his wife’s pain. “For some time,” he writes, “my wife, Martina Asizu was in great agony from a sharp pain that kept her from sitting or kneeling. She had to stay on the floor. Seeing her thus I was so saddened by her painful condition that I implored this saint with all my heart to perform his miracle if it would alleviate my suffering wife who is now somewhat better … [and I have] full confidence of her eventual complete recovery.” Although the text remains legible, the image is almost completely obliterated leaving only a reddish landscape with a torn Virgin and Child in one corner. Forensic software was able to increase the contrast between the ground and a vague smudge embedded in it to extract the hunched shape of Martina Asizu—kneeling again.
An especially otherworldly quality of faith emanates from a bed of pain or from the operating table, where, under anesthesia, most dream and are very afraid but do not die. The patient in a hospital ex-voto appears as a comatose or eviscerated bundle at the mercy of alien masked doctors. Here, Filomena Canchola’s bed is flanked by giant oxygen tanks. It is 1948, and her siblings thank the Virgin of San Juan for their sister’s safe recovery. In other hospital scenes this popular manifestation of Mary is shown hovering near the ceiling, just offstage as a reassuring physical presence, but in this scene she appears on the wall as a two-dimensional portrait, like a retablo. As a painting within a painting, the saint is present not as a Deus ex machina but as part of the trappings of the room.


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