Painted ‘ex-votos’

Painted ‘ex-votos’
From left to right and from top to bottom: 1865, 1817, 1863, 1869-79, 1826 and 1825. Painted votive offerings (canvases and polychrome panels) offered to the Blessed Christ of the Battles. Church-Museum of San Sebastián de los Caballeros (Toro, Zamora, Spain). Photographs: Jesús Caramanzana. Top to down and left to right: Dangerous childbirth (a, b)., birth after abortion (c, d), postpartum period (e and f) © Jesús Caramanzana

Painted ‘ex-votos’

V Welcome and bounding


The legend of the Santísimo Cristo de las Batallas is linked to a famous battle that took place in 1476. Its outcome consolidated Isabella the Catholic on the throne of Castile. The image has a very important pious tradition in the city, where it is reputed to be miraculous for the many graces it grants to those who beseech it for favours in times of extreme tribulation.

The votive offering is one of the many ways in which humans communicate with divine beings, and although the gesture is simple —a human offers an object in gratitude for a favour granted – the relationship between humans and supernatural presences is complex. The relationship is established when the divinity, which is in an asymmetrical situation of superiority, intervenes in favour of the sufferer and can do so in unforeseen situations or in the labours and contingencies that accompany humans throughout their lives. 

The labour of childbirth and the associated ailments that affect mothers and children are situations conducive to the offering. The suffering woman or her relatives make a promise in exchange for a favour. When the devotee’s request is satisfied, and he accepts that he has been the object of a miracle —a personal experience in which an event is perceived as extraordinary —he makes it public by presenting the ex-voto. The ex-voto explains the extraordinary intervention at a specific moment on specific people.

These painted votive offerings present the stereotypical image of the benefactor with great plasticity, but they also show in detail the way of life of the beneficiaries. Religion is a social phenomenon, but its experience is individual. Belief becomes tangible with the pictorial image that combines faith and the values that make up the collective imaginary with the concerns that the mourners want to communicate, in our case the moment of childbirth and the postpartum period.

The ancient custom of offering votive offerings developed strongly from the 16th century onwards and, despite the rise of agnosticism, it is still strongly maintained in the Catholic sphere, even when some supernatural beings are not recognised by the Church. [Pilar Panero García]