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Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Ex-votos Explained: One of Mexico’s Most Unique Artistic Traditions

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A man seems to converse with the devil (Kisín) about his crop failures but is interrupted by the Virgen de Guadalupe before striking a possibly sinful deal.

At once expressive and fantastical, ex-votos are a form of religious folk art that expresses gratitude for miracles and positive outcomes. 

Though the exact form of these votive paintings varies from country to country, in Mexico, these devotional pieces have taken on the colorful style for which the country is known. Though some ex-votos can be elaborate, the votive offering’s outpouring of emotion is prioritized over artistic technique, realistic proportions, or proper perspective.

La Virgen de Guadalupe is far and away the most beloved religious icon in Mexico — which explains why she is so prolific on ex-votos. This example is from 1900.

Given their religious subject matter, ex-votos often take on properties associated with magical realism, an art form with roots in Latin American literature that matter-of-factly depicts the surreal. 

Since the colonial period, votive paintings in Mexico have been primarily dedicated to figures like La Virgen de Guadalupe or San Judas Tadeo. Still, there is evidence that ancient Mesoamerican cultures engaged in similar practices.

In recent years, ex-votos covering encounters with UFOs and otherworldly creatures have become increasingly common.

When Europeans arrived on the continent, the ancient traditions of the Maya, Olmec, and Aztecs were fused with Catholic beliefs and artistic conventions, giving birth to the hand-painted tin or wood ex-votos we know today.

Though ex-votos hold very special meaning for the faithful, this folk art form has become popular among anyone who appreciates these colorful pieces simply for their charm. These days, ex-votos are sold in bazaars and artisan shops, often as reproductions of fairly famous pieces.

Ex-votos are often created to thank a sacred benefactor for helping the artist or person commissioning the piece to find love. In this case, the love is same-sex.

The paintings traditionally depict scenes of gratitude for a successful childbirth after a particularly difficult pregnancy, a change of fortunes, or the return of a family’s “black sheep” to the fold. But these days, the themes presented on contemporary ex-votos often bring to life images that parish priests probably would not approve of, such as encounters with UFOs or a gay person finding love.

This is not to say that ex-votos no longer hold an important space in the hearts and minds of the faithful, but that their unique, often childlike, imagery has gained popularity with a much broader fan base. 

So these days, ex-votos are found in the homes of Mexican grandmothers and those of young expats alike, though the subject matter is likely to vary, to say the least. 

Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy, and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway.
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