‘Ex-voto’ is a scholarly term which covers milagres (miracles) and promessas (promises). They are offerings to saints as either private devotions or specially recommended by someone in order to receive a requested favour or miracle, as a public display of gratitude.
They were widely used in Greco-Roman antiquity.
Though their origins are unknown, that they can be traced back to around 2000 BCE.
The offering is placed in a public or collectively accessible place and is represented in a variety of testimonial ways:
• iconographic representation (painting or photograph) of the favour or miracle received, such as the threat of death, disease cured, danger avoided or miracles that saved property from fire, drought, flood, plagues, debts. The recovered object is drawn and put together with a narrative of the miracle and the identity of who granted it;
• sculptural representation, normally for a cured disease;
• inscriptions on boards, in marble or another “noble” material of the witness or as thanks for the favour received;
• valuables such as jewels, money, precious liturgical objects and even chapels constructed in thanks, such as the case of Nossa Senhora do Ó, in Sabará, Minas Gerais;
• symbolic elements like candles and flowers;
• crucifixes used in pilgrimages;
• representations of houses, buildings and car keys accompanied by notes referring to the acquisition of the object or survival in disasters or accidents;
• cigarette packets and bottles of alcohol to give thanks for the breaking of an addiction;
• representation of various types of animals that show the gratitude of an owner for the cure of an animal or its protection from grave danger.
In Portugal, it was common to pay for promises made in decisive moments of nationality by erecting monuments of great beauty like the Alcobaça Monestry, built by Afonso Henriques after the capture of Santarém from the Saracens; the Batalha Monestry, as a symbol of gratitude to Santa Maria da Vitória for the success against the Spanish, and many others, such as the Belém Tower, the Convent of Mafra and the Nossa Senhora dos Mártires Church, in Tavira.
The habit of offering ‘ex-votos’ remains alive for a great number of faithful followers at various levels of the population. With the invention of photography and of semi-industrialised wax figurines, the concern about presenting an aesthetic piece has disappeared. The ‘ex-voto’ has lost its artistic value, but it has not stopped having great significance as a form of religious expression, faith and hope of Brazilian people.
Recife, 9 July 2003.
(Updated on 28 August 2009.)
Translated by Peter Leamy, February 2011.
ARAÚJO, Iaperí. Elementos da arte popular. Natal: UFRN. Ed. Universitária, 1985.
CASTRO, Márcia de Moura. O ex-voto em Minas Gerais e suas origens. Cultura, Brasília, a.8, n.31, p.106-112, jan./mar. 1979.
SILVA, Maria Augusta Machado da. Ex-votos e orantes no Brasil: leitura museológica. Rio de Janeiro: Museu Histórico Nacional, 1981.
how to quote this text
Source: GASPAR, Lúcia. Ex-Votos (Offerings). Pesquisa Escolar On-Line, Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, Recife. Available at: <http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar/>. Accessed: day month year. Exemple: 6 Aug. 2009.