Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Image and Text in Ex Votos

Ex Voto: Eusebio Najera and Wife. 1942
Tomorrow the Museum opens our Spring quarter exhibition, “Miracles of Mexican Folk Art: Retablos and Ex Votos,” built around the beautiful collection assembled by Dr. Antonio Sanchez, who serves as the university’s legislative liaison in Olympia. Anthropologists have long been fascinated with votive images the world over, through which the faithful share visions of divine beings who are normally invisible, and express their prayers and gratitude for transformative interventions by these sacred entities.

We have been wondering how we might most productively engage our visitors with these works. How should we encourage close looking, and help elicit thoughtful interpretations and readings of the votive imagery? One theme we hope to emphasize is the complex relationship between text and image in the Ex Votos: what kind of important work is done by juxtaposing visual and written representations of a miraculous event? We might introduce visitors to the anthropological concept of “performativity”: certain kinds of representative acts help to bring about precisely the state of affairs that they represent, and this dynamic can be intensified when written words and painted images operate in concert.

Consider, first, Eusebio Najera and his wife’s 1942 ex voto, in which they give thanks for successfully building a house. The text in the lower right of the image proclaims: " Due to the difficulties I faced to build my house I hailed San Antonio, who is revered in the barrio of Guadalupe, Venado, S.L.P. to grant me permission to build it, and granted the favor we are immensely grateful. Eusebio Najera and wife." diarias, SLP, January 1942. [Signed] J Badillo."

In the top center we see Saint Antonio, depicted, as he often is, holding the infant Jesus. In the middle foreground we see two depictions of what appears to be the same family, consisting of a father, mother and three children, presumably the family of the worshiper. In the center, just underneath the large image of the Saint, we see the family with their backs to us, in a straight line, facing the saint who has granted them the house. To the right we see another image of the same family, in front of their home, in a more informal pose. The mother is closest to the doorway of the house, next to her husband, as the parents look out as their three children, one of whom is bending to pick up something. The family seems suspended between two structures, a stucco-covered completed house on the far right, and a rougher building still show brick work, a little to its left.

Might we read the entire image as a linear sequence, to be read from left to right? In the far left we see an empty space, before a tree, perhaps signifying the empty plot upon which the family hopes to construct a house; then, in the middle the family prays (still in a relatively empty space) to the Saint for their hoped-for home, then we see, further to the right, the house partly constructed, and then we see the house fully completed, with the family happily gathered in the courtyard of their granted wish, the residential space itself? One wonders, speculatively, if some of the “difficulties” encountered in building the house were encountered when it was partly constructed, and if the image might allude to this. (Is is also possible that the family in fact built two structures, which are both imaged here). In any event, it is noteworthy that in front of the house, the father wears his hat; but when standing in line of front of the Saint, his head is appropriately bare.

We also might contemplate the arboreal imagery in the painting. The house is sheltered under the spreading branches of the tree, and the image of Saint Anthony is itself flanked by trees. It may be that the right tree is being represented as a manifestation of the protective Saint, whose arms bless the family within their new home. We might even read the two trees, on the right and left of the landscape, as the same tree; first, on the left, the tree stands over a bare plot of land, then, on the right, the same tree has extended itself outwards to shelter the prayerful family and their home.

Juana Rosas. 1932
It is also intriguing that the left margin of the written text is precisely aligned under the prayerful father and the left edge of the image of the Saint to whom he prays. The left half of this landscape, in effect, is relatively empty and perhaps "pre-linguistic," with everything existing in potentia, while the right half, filled with house and with the two images of the family, constitutes a space appropriate to thankful language.

In turn, the image dedicated by Juana Rosas in 1932, to give thanks for her son’s recovery from illness, would seem to give visual expression to the transformative interaction between the threatened young man and the healing power of Jesus. The text proclaims, “Juana Rozas gives infinite thanks to Santo Cristo for having saved her son F.E. from danger -14-8-32”

We see on the bottom left the mother praying at the bedside of her son. The young man, “F.E.” is shown prone in bed, covered by a white blanket, which curves down from his chest to his stomach and then up to raised knees. This “U” like curve is reduplicated above him in the “U” of the clouds surrounding the crucified Christ, suspended in the sky above him, in the image’s upper center. The ruffles at the base of the blanket or bed skirt in turn seem to emulate the shape of the circular clouds above, around Jesus. One reading is that the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection is being sympathetically transmitted from the Savior to the patient, and that the sick bed, which easily could have been a place of death, is thus through divine intervention transformed into a place of recovery.

The ritual work of visual representation may also be suggested in Efren Gonzalez’s 1935 offered image, which bears the inscription:

Efren Gonzalez. 1935

Perfeta García. 1937
"Having fallen ill of my back I invoked the Holy Virgin, protector of San Juan, and in a short time I have recovered my health. Therefore, being thankful to such wondrous woman I gift this [ex-voto]. Efrén Gonzalez, San Diego de la Union, January 25 1935. " The praying man in overalls holds in his right hand an extended straight votive candle as he faces the Blessed Virgin, surrounded by clouds. Is it possible that the straightness of the candle is iconic of the straightness of the penitent’s spine, cured by the Virgin Mother’s miraculous intervention?

Another process of healing is represented in the Ex Voto presented by Perfeta García in 1937: "Finding myself seriously ill, affected in my brain, hailed with all fervor to the Señor San Antonio to give relief, and finding myself already much better I give infinite thanks for the gift granted by such a miraculous image. Perfeta Garcia. January 24-37. Cha_can [?] S.L.P. [Signed] J Badillos. "

At the center of the image we see St Anthony, once again holding the infant Jesus. To the side of the image of the Saint pray two women and a man, presumably the patient himself. Over on the left, the patient, evidently now restored to health, stands upright beside his bed. To the right, we see a small figure on a pathway surmounting a hill, covered with trees at its crest. Might we read this pathway as a representation of the patient’s own path to health, climbing, as it were, from madness back to sanity? It is fascinating in any event that the text makes specific references to the “miraculous image”: are we to surmise that during his illness the patient contemplated a painting of Saint Anthony and that he attributes his return to sanity as a gift of the image itself, which is reproduced here.

Julián Flores. (1927)
I am particularly taken with Julián Flores’s ex voto (1927) on which is inscribed: "Mr. Julíian Flores gives infinite thanks to Señor San Antonío of the barrio of Guadalupe, Venado, S.L.P. for having found a cow lost in the hills and after many days he found her one day in the morning and he publishes his miracle through this retablo. VENADO, S.L.P. 1927"

The image is divided between a colorful landscape on the left, which depicts the moment at which the worshiper, on horseback and wearing a hat, discovered the cow with her suckling calf, and a monochromatic depiction of a church or cathedral, in which the worshiper, alone and bare-headed, faces the altar kneeling in prayer, either in supplication or gratitude. There seems to be an implied visual parallelism between the interior and external landscapes: the mountainous setting is by implication filled with the same divine grace as the sanctuary, the miraculous presence that has restored to the supplicant his livelihood.

Cosme y Gonsalo Perez. 1964
An especially graphic scene is depicted in Cosme y Gonsalo Perez’s 1964 Ex voto, recounting his recovery from a nearly fatal accident on a horse. The inscription records, “I thank the Holy Virgien of San Juan de los Lagos for having found ourselves in an encounter with horses we found ourselves in a trance of death, I invoked [the aid of] the Santa Virgien de San Juan de los Lagos, being granted the miracle.  La Piedad, Michoacan, Sep. 24 1964. Cosme y Gonsalo Perez.""

In the upper right we see the Blessed Virgin of the Lake. Below her we see rearing horses with empty saddles. Directly below the Virgin, we see a man, presumably the thankful worshiper, prone on the ground with blood pouring from his head. His arm reaches upwards towards the Virgin, to whom he prayed while on the frontier between life and death. The image powerfully evokes the penitent’s experiences of having been on the borderlands between worlds; his flowing blood may be evocative of the wounds of Christ, ultimately bound up and healed through divine intervention.

Maria Silvain. 1954
Finally, I’m fascinated by the Ex Voto offered by Maria Silvain in 1954, on which is written:

"I give infinite thanks to our very Holy Virgin of San Juan, for having granted the miracle of my son Jose Lopez returned after my in-laws took him away. Nov. 30, 1954. Maria Silva."

Here, we see the kneeling mother, in a black shawl, holding her returned son, who rests his head on her bosom, facing the Virgin. It makes sense that a mother seek reunion with her son would seek the aid of the Blessed Mother who similarly lost, and found, her own son. Are we to infer that Maria Silvain (herself named for the Virgin Mary) is shown here in mourning, and that it is the family of her late husband who had for a time taken the boy from her? I am not quite sure why the mother is shown kneeling on cobblestones; perhaps this is to contrast her earthly state with the heavenly status of the Virgin, who floats on celestial clouds Perhaps the bare cobblestones stress the isolation of the mother, left widowed and cruelly abused by her in laws, and thus emphasize how great a miracle she has experienced in being reunited with her son.

These preliminary readings of the Ex Votos are of course speculative. It will be fascinating, as community members with more direct knowledge of this genre, visit the exhibition and share their insights into these fascinating, compelling works.

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