While visiting the Museo Diocesano in Udine recently, I came upon an unusual collection of small paintings. Each one depicted a particularly gruesome scene; someone falling from a rooftop, someone being gored in the eye by a bull, someone being trampled by a carriage and so on. They reminded me of the terrible illustrations of a childhood book I once had called “Shock-headed Peter” or “Struwwelpeter” (1845) (as it is known in Germany) which is a darkly comical book of cautionary tales for children. Needless to say, I was fascinated.
These paintings are examples of “Ex-Votos”. These are small tokens of gratitude offered to the Virgin Mary or a Saint for prayers answered. In their simplest form they are the candles, flowers, notes and trinkets which we often see in church. In their more elaborate forms they are representations of the injured or afflicted body part.
I had never before seen paintings as Ex-Votos. Apparently this is a thing mostly in Mediterranean cultures and in Latin America. The paintings are often naive looking in their style and depict: The name of the person needing help, the date of the illness or accident, the depiction of the holy figure being asked for help, the depiction of the tragedy for which help is being asked, and the letters P.G.R. (Per Grazie Ricevuta) or more simply G.R. (Grazia Ricevuta).
According to noted Ex- Voto collector Mariolina Rizzi Salvatori, who has an comprehensive website explaining the origins, history and evolution of Ex-votos), “This tradition originated in Italy in the 15th century when wealthy patrons commissioned artists to compose a visual representation of miracles they had been granted or hoped for. According to a patron’s wealth, the painting would then be hung in a church, private chapel, or home. When the tradition spread to the less wealthy, it fell out of fashion with the upper classes. In the early part of the colonial period it spread to Europe, eventually to Latin America, reaching its height in Mexico during the middle of the nineteenth century.”
“On September 8, 1528 in Ornavasso, Piedmont, a young shepherdess fell down a cliff while searching for her sheep; she asked for Mary’s help and was immediately saved, she then found her herd near a small chapel which enshrined an image of the Blessed Virgin. It was the Madonna del Boden – from the German word for “plain”, a legacy of the 13th-century colony founded in the area by the Walser, a Germanic people from Switzerland.
After the miraculous saving, locals started to celebrate the Madonna del Boden every year on September 8; in the 1600s, a Sanctuary was built to welcome pilgrims and their numerous ex votos.”
The Ex-Votos in the Museo Diocesano have been collected from small parishes around the Region. So, even though the main draw to the museum are the beautiful Tiepolo frescoes, don’t miss this little display towards then end of the museum. It is quite unusual and fascinating