Nurse Bartolo Garcia thanks Saint Cosmas, patron saint of physicians, for having been transferred to another hospital ward, so he doesn’t have to give enemas anymore. Remedios Mendoza is grateful to Saint Anthony of Padua for saving her boyfriend’s life after he had an embolic stroke at the altar during their wedding. And the Virgin of Guadalupe is being credited for having accomplished the ‘miracle’ of ridding Tereso Garcia of his hangover. The William H. Helfand collection of ex-votos and devotional paintings on medical subjects, recently donated to the Kislak Center, is a treasure trove of such anecdotes, and an open portal to late 19th and 20th century Mexican folk religious practices.A graduate from Penn (CHE 1948), Helfand is a well-known historian of pharmacy and medicine, and a collector of prints, posters, illustrations, and ephemera on medical subjects. Such interests are reflected in this collection of ex-votos, votive paintings on tin or other cheap metal sheets, which were — and still are — usually hung in Mexican churches and other religious venues as a sign of gratitude for received blessings or healings. In a nutshell, the long ex-voto tradition is a reflection of the rich cultural history of Mexico. Public offerings of symbolic objects in response to the benevolence of the divinity are common in Europe, and their origins may be traced back to the ancient Greeks. In Mexico, votive customs had existed even before the arrival of the Spanish, but a figurative tradition emerged only in the 16th century, with the dissemination of Marian cults promoted by European evangelists. Until the end of the 18th century the offering of votive paintings was mostly a prerogative of the wealthy, but after Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the tradition was gradually appropriated by the lower classes. With this social shift came a corresponding change in the ex-votos themselves. In the 19th century, tin replaced the expensive canvas that had previously been used, and local, unschooled painters began to specialize in this kind of production, gradually developing personal styles. 20th-century Mexican painters such as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Gabriel Fernández Ledesma, and Roberto Montenegro highly valued ex-votos, and employed them as a source of inspiration for their own works. Unmediated by academic pictorial influences, the genuine devotion embodied and transmitted by these small paintings – “masterpieces on tin,” Rivera famously called them – can be appreciated in the ex-votos of the Helfand collection. Even in the case of the most overt and comical deviations from official religious practices, viewing these images is a touching experience, for both the simplicity of the drawings, and the shaky handwriting of the captions accompanying them, never fail to reveal the emotional participation of the worshippers, if not their personal struggles. Such is the case, for instance, of a 1943 ex-voto from Mexico City, in which a woman is portrayed kneeling, her hands covering her face, next to the bed in which her son is suffering from measles. Or of another example from 1960 dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua, in which the praying mother and her baby daughter with pneumonia are humbly portrayed at the very bottom of the painting, while an ochre-colored backdrop symbolizes both the intimacy of the domestic space and the immensurable distance separating the mortal world from that of saint.
But the ex-votos in the collection also tell us another story, not less moving than the personal stakes of the people being portrayed: that of their extraordinary life as historical objects, scattered around the world as collectible items after having been discarded from overcrowded walls. It is a story that ex-votos have in common with much other archival material, and it is in most cases hard to reconstruct. Yet, an ex-voto represents not only a personal testimony of the blessing received in a given historical moment, but also a sum of human emotional encounters, enabled and accrued through the decades by the religious subject-matter, the image on the painting, or even the material carrying them. An ex-voto to Saint Paschal Baylon, patron of the kitchen and of cooks, was painted on a circular metal lid: an object with its own life story, maybe used in that same kitchen represented in the scene, and which has experienced so many uses and meanings before having been handed to us.