Expert opinion
The ex-voto: an intermediary between the divine and the human

Ex voto is a composite Latin expression that, among other translations, means “from the vow made”, which we may understand to signify a promise made upon receiving a favor. In any version, ex-votos express gratitude for a favor, and are a means of communication between the human and the divine.

The tradition of offering a gift to a divinity for a favor received finds its origins in the most ancient civilizations in human history. Figurines, weapons, animals, sacrifices, jewels and other objects were gifted to the gods in the hope that they would come to the assistance of the person making the gift.

Over the centuries, the ex-voto in Christian practice became an offering made to Jesus, to the Virgin Mary or to a saint to give thanks for a favor perceived to have taken place.

This tradition came to Mexico in the 16th century with the arrival of the Spaniards. It is said that the first ex-voto to be made in this territory was on the orders of Hernán Cortés. The story of this object suggests that Cortés promised the Virgin of Extremadura in Spain that he would give her a beautiful jewel if she saved him from the terrible sting of a scorpion. When Cortés traveled to Spain in 1528, he made a stop at Extremadura Monastery to offer the Virgin of Guadalupe a small gold casket in the shape of a scorpion hung with small chains and set with precious stones. In 1778 a lay brother of the monastery of Guadalupe carried out an inventory and made a copy of one of the principal jewels of the Virgin, the scorpion of Cortés, and it is thanks to this document that we know what the jewel looked like. In the 19th century the precious objects that were located in the niche disappeared, together with the ex-voto made by Cortés. To this day the whereabouts of the legendary jeweled ex-voto are unknown.

Countless ex-votos were painted during the colonial period, the most popular dedicatees being the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Virgin of Soledad, among others. In the 19th century the ex-voto tradition became even more widespread and it was transformed into a kind of folk art.

The ex-voto opens up a window onto an alternative history of Mexico, as they provide information about the beliefs, the most common causes of accidents, diseases and the different

The Aguascalientes Regional History Museum has a collection of over 120 ex-votos, most of them dedicated to Our Lord of the Thunderbolt, and dating from the 1950s and 1960s.

Devotion to Our Lord of the Thunderbolt

This sculpture of the Crucified Christ is found in Temastián, an enclaved town in the heart of northern Jalisco. It is believed that the sculpture of Our Lord of the Thunderbolt dates from the 16th century and that it was made by indigenous people from Michoacán. At that time Temastián was an indigenous community known as the “carrizal” or “reedbed”.

The tradition relating to this sculpture suggests that one day the Franciscan monks were praying to the figure of the crucified Christ beneath a mesquite tree, when it was struck by a lightning bolt, damaging the cross but leaving the figure intact.

Following this miracle, in the 17th century a small chapel was built in honor of the miraculous image, though it wasn’t until 1922 that a proper sanctuary was constructed to host the many pilgrims who to this day come to visit Our Lord of the Thunderbolt.

Since colonial times, the devotion to Our Lord of the Thunderbolt has expanded across the central region of the country, especially the states of Jalisco, Aguascalientes and Zacatecas; the sculpture is also venerated by many living in the United States.

There are numerous stories about the origin of the name of this image, but the most important thing is that the devotion persists to this day. Ex-votos narrate the real, lived, authentic experience of anonymous people in history. For the most part, these naïve paintings refer to divine assistance in restoring good health following an accident or illness.

Ex-votos such as the one shown here offer us a glimpse of people’s daily routine, from different perspectives, cultural values and forms of devotion. In this piece we can see how the milagrero or retablero (as the painter of ex-votos is called), captures a simple room of the period. Sometimes, the artist painted the metal sheet and the person who ordered the ex-voto to be made wrote the text about the miracle or divine intervention that they believed to have occurred.

This is one of the few cases in the collection of ex-votos held by the MRHA to also display the signature of the artist,“Márquez” who must have been a local painter or retablero from Aguascalientes. In this painting, Márquez depicts in as realist a manner as possible a bedroom from the period with its typical furnishings.

Ex-votos provide us with information about the different social spheres of our country, the accidents that occur in the city or in the countryside; as well as diseases and common ailments in the population. When observing an ex-voto it must be analyzed in keeping with the particular approach of the mentality and aesthetics of the moment in which they were created, since as we have seen, they portray daily life in Mexico and the history of its people. Hence, from the second half of the 20th century to the present day, the subjects of ex-votos have gradually come to focus on the different kinds of everyday suffering that continues to plague Mexico: migration, alcoholism, gender violence, and organized crime.

Under translation
Under translation


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