Do You Believe in Miracles?

USA TODAY, February 2010 | Go to article overview

Do You Believe in Miracles?


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Healing and faith always have played a role in the lives of the faithful. They are interwoven in the fabric of social history. How we regard illness and healing, and how we cope with them, have captured our imagination throughout the ages.

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"Everyday Miracles: Medical Imagery in Ex-Votos" explores the relationship between faith and healing as expressed in the personal devotional paintings from Italy and Mexico. Ex-Votos are small paintings, usually done on tin, that are an expression of an individual's gratitude for the intercession of the divine in a crisis. Using examples of the past 300 years, the exhibition provides a glimpse of the role that faith has played for some in the healing of illness and injury, and illustrates both the prayers of the faithful and the symptoms of illnesses such as smallpox and tuberculosis.

The expression of our relationship with illness is illustrated wonderfully in the ex-voto, which gives thanks to a saint or deity for a miraculous healing or blessing. The faithful always have used prayer to invoke the aid of saints as a means to heal the sick and end one's suffering. These devotional paintings are an individual's expression of thanks for the intercession of the divine in a crisis, a snapshot in time of illness and healing.

From its beginnings in 15th-century Italy through its spread to the New World in the 16th century, ex-votos have played a role in the daily lives of the faithful, especially in Mexico, and continued to be a popular expression of faith and healing into the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the most prolific period of ex-voto production. After praying to a saint for a miraculous healing, an individual would commission a local artist to create a small painting that would be hung in the local church as a public testimony of that individual's faith and gratitude for a miracle.

Usually done on canvas or tin, ex-votos generally consist of three basic elements: the depiction of the saint or deity, the illustrative rendering of the event, and the narrative. Variations of this standard form can be seen over time, but the central elements remain the same. The image of a single deity usually floats above the scene, sometimes surrounded by clouds, indicating his or her heavenly presence. Centrally located is the visually descriptive scene of the illness, injury, or incident, or an image of the stricken individual. …

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