"Offer to God the sacrifice of praise: and pay thy vows to the most High.
And call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt
Votive offerings (a.k.a. "votives" and "ex-votos") are actions or material
things vowed to God (or promised to a Saint for their intercession with God)
in return for a hoped-for miracle, offered in thanksgiving for already-answered
prayer, or given in thanksgiving for blessings not asked for.
Votives can range from the humble to the resplendent; great artists have
made votives -- by their own volition or at the commission of wealthy patrons
-- of statues, paintings, hymns, stained glass -- even entire churches or
shrines have been given "ex voto." Usually, paintings and other artworks
offered ex voto depict the miracles for which the votive is being offered,
and many bear the intials "VFGA" which stand for the Latin "Votum Fecit Gratiam
Accepit" -- "Vow made, graces received," simply "E.V." for "Ex Voto" ("in
fulfillment of a vow"), or some vernacular equivalent.
In Mexico, ex-voto artworks -- almost always painted on tin sheets since
the 19th century -- are extremely popular and usually include not only an
artistic depiction of the blessings concerned and the Heavenly intercessor
who helped make it happen, but a section of text at the bottom that describes
the event in words. The works are taken to churches and publicly displayed
to act as a witness to God's power and to give Him thanks. 1 So popular are ex-voto paintings
in Mexico, that the walls of some churches are literally covered with them.
The Mexican ex-voto at right shows a mother and father praying to Christ
Who saves their child.
As said, ex-votos need not be paintings; they can be much more fanciful.
For example, on his wedding day, the English King Henry III offered a gold
statue of his bride at the shrine of St. Edward, and King Edward III left
a model of a ship at his father's tomb when he was spared from a shipwreck.
One can find many such ships left by sailors through the centuries in the
churches of coastal towns.
Wax candles as tall as the one healed were often given to churches in return
for God's blessings -- and bread, cheese, or grain equal in weight to that
of a sick child were once common votives given to the the poor in return
for the same. A particular example of the latter took place in A.D. 1263,
when a child drowned near the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua as it was
still being built. The mother prayed to St. Anthony for his intercession
and promised that if her child were restored to life, she would give to the
poor an amount of wheat equal to the weight of her child. Of course her son
was saved, and her promise was kept. "St.
Anthony's Bread," then, is a votive of giving alms in return for a favor
asked of God through St. Anthony's intercession. The giving of St. Anthony's
Bread takes place on the great
Saint's feast (13 June), and also throughout the year when parents give
alms after placing their babies under the patronage of St.
bring their crutches and wheelchairs to the shrines of Saints who've interceded
in their healing, and certain shrines have become known for being places
where Saintly intercession is especially powerful, such as the miraculous
healings at Lourdes and at shrines devoted to St. Anthony, happy childbirths
granted after praying before the statue of "Madonna del Parto" (Our Lady
of Childbirth) in the Church of Sant'Agostino in Rome or at the shrine of
the infant Jesus in the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli. Many healings
have been granted after praying at the Basilica of Ste. Anne de Beaupré
in Canada; the picture at right shows an almost sculpturesque collection
of crutches at St. Anne's Canadian shrine.
The Most Common Votives
Ex voto offerings
most often take the form of the lighting of candles,
the placing of flowers or pictures before icons, and leaving thank-you notes,
money, or little tokens on or near the altars or statues of Saints in churches,
shrines, or family altars.
This last -- the leaving of little tokens -- is most common in Mediterranean
cultures (Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain) and the cultures they gave rise
to, especially Mexico. These tokens (known in Spanish as "milagros" meaning
"miracles," or as "promesas") can be made of anything -- paper, wax, bone,
wood, silver, tin, copper, bronze, gold (the inexpensive metals are the most
common nowadays) -- and almost always take shapes that symbolize the miracle
one is seeking or for which one is offering thanks. For example, if one has
bad eyes, an ex-voto depicting eyes is taken to a church -- especially to
a church dedicated to St. Lucy, Patroness of those with eye problems -- or
is placed on one's home altar near a statue or other icon of the Saint being
besought or thanked. These ex-votos are
pinned to clothing that may adorn a statue, and are nailed onto wooden crosses,
into ornate shadow boxes, and onto frames holding holy pictures. They are
also pinned to ribbons that hang in shrines and around family altars just
for this purpose, and are often accompanied by thank-you notes to God and
Ex-votos of this
type can be shaped like body parts, people, animals, crops, household objects,
houses, cars, boats, etc., and can be homemade, specially commissioned, or
bought from religious vendors. Their symbology can be straightforward, or
more metaphorical; for example, a dog-shaped charm can represent one's own
pet -- or "faithfulness." A sampling of this sort of ex-voto is
Note that some people mistakenly use these ex-votos
as talismans, a superstitious act that has no place in our holy religion.
They can have secular purposes, for sure, such as for use in jewelry, or
for decoration, souvenirs, trading, or collecting, but any magical thinking
attached to them is not Catholic thinking. While the use of such items as
these as offerings to what is alleged to be divine is extremely ancient
(Neolithic!) and found in many false religions and in many cultures of the
ancient world (Sumerian, Phoenician, African, Greek, Roman, Aztec), it is
also a practice ordained by the true God in Old Testament times --
I Kings 6:5, 11
According to the number of the provinces of the Philistines you shall make
five golden emerods [boils or blains], and five golden mice: for the same
plague hath been upon you all, and upon your lords. And you shall make the
likeness of your emerods, and the likeness of the mice that have destroyed
the land, and you shall give glory to the God of Israel: to see if he will
take off his hand from you, and from your gods, and from your land... And
they laid the ark of God upon the cart, and the little box that had in it
the golden mice and the likeness of the emerods.
-- and by His Church in this dispensation.
1 "Retablos," often confused with ex-voto paintings,
are sacred paintings also made on tin, but which are not taken to churches,
their being kept on family altars instead (the word comes from the Latin
"retro tablua," meaning "behind the altar.") "Santos" are retablos that depict
Saints. "Laminas" refers to the sheets of tin that all of these types of
paintings are made with, and is a word used to describe the paintings