Graces Received

One of the great pleasures of traveling through southern Italy is coming across the small objects made and offered in thanks for an answered prayer. One of my favorite places is the church of Santa Maria del Soccorso, in the town of Forio on the Island of Ischia (my paternal hometown) in the Bay of Naples. The tiny whitewashed church, set on an enormous rampart that faces the ocean, is filled with small models of fishing boats and paintings of storms at sea—offerings to the Madonna for her miraculous assistance in bringing home the fishermen and boat-bound travelers who set sail, fought an almost certain watery fate, and yet returned safely to port.

The church of Santa Maria del Soccorso (Madonna of Assistance), in Forio, Ischia, houses a collection of ex votos
Two ex votos from Santa Maria del Soccorso: a model ship (there are hundreds in the church) depicting an actual ship that was saved from disaster, and a depiction of one such disaster, below. Upon the safe return of the travelers, an ex voto was offered to the Madonna. Both images from the Internet; below, from the Forio Culture website
.The V.F.G.A. you see in the painting below is Latin for Voto Made. Graces Accepted

In Napoli there is an amazing sight in La Cappella della Visitazione, which is tucked into the fortress-like church of Gesu Nuovo. In the Visitation chapel, the walls are paved with ex votos offered to San Giuseppe Moscati for his intervention in healing supplicants suffering from disease or illness. The chased metal objects depicting arms and torsos, knees and eyes, breasts and lungs—or whatever body part has been restored to health—are set onto red felt and framed. Sometimes a photograph is tucked into the frame. 

The Cappella della Visitazione in the church of Gesu Nuovo in Naples
Both images from the Internet; above, from twiga_swala

Ex Voto, the Latin term Italians use, indicates that each object is the result of a vow made to commemorate the answered prayer. In Latin America, ex votos are known as milagros, miracles. Whatever you call them, they are a marvelous bit of Roman Catholic Voodoo. I rejected the religion decades ago but fully embrace the emotion and craft of these intimate expressions of gratitude.

Ex votos for sale in a shop in Naples. Image from a website promoting the region of Campania
You can see a lovely display of many such objects, Graces Received: Painted and Metal Ex Votos from Italy, at the Calandra Institute in New York City through January 6, 2012. These ex votos. dating from 1865 to 1959, are from the collection of Leonard Norman Primiano, a professor at Cabrini College. Here the majority of works are not chased metal but small painted panels, tavolette, depicting an accident or illness for which a miraculous intercession was requested and received. It’s clear that the tavolette  were not painted by professional artists, but their narrative is nonethless compelling and their compositional naivete is beautifully expressive.

Here, take a look:

Looking into the gallery at the Calandra Institute

Professor Primiano (speaking to an interviewer) with a panel of metal ex votos at his back

Below: a detail of some of the objects. Most are silver-plated metal or copper, some quite detailed 

Above: another view of the exhibition. The painting in the foreground is shown in larger view below

Sometimes you have to guess the narrative: Is this woman praying to the Madonna, depicted aloft in a yolky chariot of a cloud, to heal her sick baby, or is she giving thanks for the delivery of a child?

I love these two. Extraneous details are stripped away, and each story is told with an economy of means. A hot liquid has fallen onto a child as his mother looks on in horror, her hands to her head

Even more succinctly, below, a swimmer dives headlong onto a submerged rock.
P.G.R. is Per grazie ricevute, for graces received

Here the intercessor is not  the Virgin Mary but Saint Anthony. Someone was gravely ill and got better. Grazie ricevute 

These two tavolette, with their roadside accidents, span more than half a century: the overturned cart in 1892, above, and the the automobile headed off the road, in 1957
I love the celestial illumination in these paintings and, below, the headlights illuminating the darkness where the auto did not go

The John D. Calandra Italian American Institute, part of Queens College in the CUNY system, is located at 25 West 43rd Street, just west of Fifth Avenue, on the 17th floor.  Gallery hours are 9:00 to 5:00, Monday through Friday. Be prepared to show a photo ID when you enter the lobby.


Nancy Natale said...

I Love this post, Joanne! I have always been attracted to these religious vows of thanks and representations of miracles. The metal pieces are great but the paintings are too wonderful. My favorite is the guy hitting his head on the underwater rock! LOL in a big way but, man, that must have smarted. Thanks for posting this collection.

LXV said...

I've got a boxful of little silver milagros which my aunt collected from a church in the Yucatán back in the 40s. She was a liturgical artist and was trying to persuade the curate of a little village that worship of this sort was superstitious and (gasp!) pagan. I am the lucky recipient of her moral rectitude. I've got hands, feet, hearts, arms & legs, each tied up in a colored ribbon. Now what to do with them? I often wear several on a chain. And people always ask about them. That in itself is the miracle: yet another form of communication, supplication, contact with "the other". I love it.

Ann Knickerbocker said...

What a contrast, between your photograph of the church of Santa Maria del Soccorso and the ex votos inside! I love the details of these ex votos, but they are so dark... Look at the wonderful white light around the church ... Isn't it interesting what the people who made these choose to see! Such a bright light ... Maybe overwhelming to them?

Kim Matthews said...

What a wonderful post, Joanne. I've always loved Mexican art, modern and traditional, and it never occurred to me that there was an Italian counterpart to milagros. Grazie, bella!

Rosangela Briscese said...

Hello. I'm one of the exhibition co-curators. Thank you for this post! The exhibit has been extended through May 25, 2012, and we have planned additional lectures for March 6 and May 8. The Calandra Institute's website has more information,