Votive Offerings: 7 Sacred Objects From Ancient History to Modern Day

The tradition of offering beautiful objects to shrines is an ancient one. Here’s how the practice has changed throughout the ages.

Jan 21, 2023By Eve Cobb, BA (Hons) History of Art (in progress)
ancient votive offerings sacred objects

 

For as long as art has been around, humans have produced beautiful objects for spiritual purposes. It is widely believed that some of the earliest artworks, such as the Paleolithic Venus of Willendorf, were associated with religious cults. Votive offerings are no exception to this long-lasting practice. Also called ex-votos, deriving from the Latin votum, “a vow,” these diverse objects were made to symbolize hope and gratitude. Different types of offerings have been produced over the course of human history, from sacred statuettes, clay figurines, and painted tablets. They were often deposited in shrines in the hope of miraculous healing. Votive offerings continue to be made in the present day, showing their lasting importance in spiritual and religious practice.

 

1. Miniature Boat Votive Offering, Egyptian, 22nd-18th Century BCE

ancient egyptian funerary boat votive offering
Model Boat and Figures, Ancient Egyptian, 22nd-18th century BCE, via Minneapolis Institute of Art

 

The Ancient Egyptians are famous for their funerary rites. Following the embalmment and procession of the body, a priest would perform magical rituals and prayers. All this was in order to prepare the deceased person for the afterlife. As well as prayers, the deceased would be supported through offerings of food and sacred objects. It was believed that by placing these items in the tomb, they would accompany the dead in the afterlife and aid them on their way. Dating from the Middle Kingdom, this miniature model of a boat acted as a symbol of the journey from the living world to that of the dead. It also offers an important glimpse into the use of boats in Ancient Egypt. The type of boat depicted here would have been used on the River Nile for fishing and transporting goods.

 

2. Bronze Bull Figurine, Greek, 8th Century BCE

ancient greek bull figurine votive offering
Bronze bull figurine, Ancient Greek, late 8th century BCE, via Dallas Museum of Art

 

Votive offerings were also used by the Ancient Greeks. As well as continuing the practice of using offerings for funerary rites, they also deposited objects at shrines. Bronze and terracotta figurines were common forms of votive offerings, and hundreds have been found in Olympia at sanctuaries dedicated to ancient gods.

 

Figures depicted included both animals and humans, such as ancient warriors. This miniature bronze bull, only 8.4cm high, was likely a votive offering to the Greek god Zeus. In Greek mythology, the bull was a significant animal. It was the father of the ferocious Minotaur, and Zeus famously transformed himself into a bull when he abducted Europa, the Phoenician princess. In addition, bulls were a core part of daily life and important in ancient agriculture. As a result, actual bulls were killed as animal sacrifices to Zeus. However, this would have been a costly practice. Instead, less wealthy pilgrims could choose to offer figurines that symbolized a sacrificial bull. Made of bronze, this would have been a more expensive offering than a terracotta bull.

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3. Votive Pregnant Woman, Roman, 1st Century BCE

ancient roman pregnant female votive offering
Votive pregnant female, Roman, 100 BC – 200 CE, via Wellcome Collection, London

 

Anatomical votive offerings were another common type in the ancient world. They could depict anything from ears, hands, or even mouths. These types of offerings were made in the hopes of miraculous healing, or in thanks after returning to health. Sometimes they were connected to fertility or childbirth.

 

This offering in the shape of a pregnant woman indicates the hopes of a safe birth, which would have been especially important considering the high maternal death rates in ancient times. Offerings in the shape of uteruses and phalluses have also been found. Anatomical votive offerings are particularly illuminating, as we can discern their specific functions and the hopes held by those who offered them. Many of them were clay-baked within a mold, allowing for easy and inexpensive mass production. As a result, they were widely used objects that were used by ordinary people. They spread throughout the Roman Empire; this particular offering, made between 100 BC – 200 CE, was excavated in Suffolk, England.

 

Votive Offerings in Medieval & Renaissance Europe

turino vanni saint margarent painting
Saint Margaret of Antioch and Stories of Her Life in the manner of Turino Vanni, c. 1400, in Vatican Pinacoteca, Vatican, via Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums

 

With the official institution of Christianity in the Roman Empire came the need to transfer ancient pagan traditions to a Christian context. Votive offerings therefore began to be used in Christian settings instead of pagan sanctuaries. By the Medieval period, anatomical votive offerings continued to be widespread. Christian shrines across Europe saw both locals and pilgrims depositing ex-votos in the shapes of body parts. Sites for saints associated with healing miracles were particularly popular. 

 

turino vanni saint margaret painting detail
Detail of Saint Margaret of Antioch and Stories of Her Life in the manner of Turino Vanni, c. 1400, in Vatican Pinacoteca, Vatican, via Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums

 

An early fifteenth-century painting of Saint Margaret of Antioch (289 – 304) shows a contemporary depiction of votive offerings. The central painting of the Saint is flanked by episodes from her life. The final scene shows sick and crippled pilgrims gathering around her tomb in the hope of miraculous healing. Above them hang the offerings left by previous visitors to the shrine, in the shapes of heads, hands, feet, and a leg. Like in the ancient world, these were basic types that could be readily bought. The painting is important evidence for how votive offerings were used in the late Medieval period. It can also show us how little the practice has changed since then; wax votive offerings in the shape of body parts are still regularly produced to be left in Christian shrines.

 

Most wax votives dating from the Medieval and Renaissance period do not survive. Instead, we rely on visual sources, like the painting above, or written records. For example, Giuliano Guizzelmi (1446 – 1518), a fifteenth-century Tuscan, detailed in 1488 the commissioning of a wax votive image in his record book. He described spending “one gold florin” for the wax used to produce an image of his infant nephew, Lactantio, who had recently been healed. The offering was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, because Lactantio had recovered from his illness after a figure of her was hung around his neck. Guizzelmi explained:

 

“As soon as the lead figure touched his flesh the illness finished and left him […] When I vowed to the Most Glorious Madonna I promised her majesty, if he remained healthy, to make him in wax, in swaddling clothes as he was and the size he was…” (Maniura, 2011)

 

Guizzelmi clearly felt much in debt to the Virgin Mary, as he also made sure that the offering was gilded with silver before he deposited it in a local oratory.

 

4. Votive Ship Model, Spanish, 15th Century

model ship fifteenth century votive offering
Ship model of a cargo vessel from the Mediterranean Sea, known as the ‘Matarómodel’, Spanish, 15th century, in Maritime Museum Rotterdam, via Google Arts and Culture

 

In the Medieval and Renaissance period, ships continued to be important forms of transport. Votive ship models were common in coastal towns in Europe that relied heavily on ports and fishing for their local economy. Hung up in churches, they would serve to give thanks or act as a prayer for safe voyages. In the case of maritime accidents, they commemorated those who had been lost at sea. This example dates from 1425, making it one of the oldest surviving Christian votive ships. Measuring at a height of 125cm, it was displayed in a chapel in the Catalan coastal city of Mataró. It may have also been carried during religious processions. These types of votive offerings were not always totally accurate representations of ships. However, they give us insight into the significance maritime transport had to local communities.

 

5. Panel Painting of Girl Falling Headfirst into a Vat of Wine, Italian, 16th Century

tolentino painting renaissance votive offering
Girl falling headfirst into a vat of wine, Anonymous, early 16th century, in Museo di San Nicola, Tolentino, via Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

 

Renaissance votive offerings also often took the form of painted panels depicting scenes of accidents or illnesses with saintly intercession. This tradition began in Italy towards the end of the fifteenth century. It is thought that their format derived from predellas, the smaller narrative scenes on polyptych (multi-panel) altarpieces below the main panels of the saints. Often, they detailed the lives of saints performing miracles. This made them a fitting tradition to use for votive paintings of saints saving people from disaster.

 

The Christian artworks that often come to mind when we think of Renaissance Italy include the likes of Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks. In contrast to these large, highly worked paintings, votive panels were smaller and much more crudely executed. Little is known about the artists who made them, as they are unsigned and therefore hard to attribute. They were quickly made and not nearly as expensive as luxury altarpieces or paintings. Their cheaper materials meant that long term degradation was sadly common. Despite this, there are still collections of painted votive offerings surviving. The shrine of the thirteenth-century Italian saint, Nicholas of Tolentino (canonized 1446) was associated with miracles. There are hundreds of examples of painted votive offerings dedicated to him.

 

In this sixteenth-century painting, a girl falls into a vat of wine during the harvest. In the upper left corner, Saint Nicholas of Tolentino floats in the clouds, surrounded by rays of holy light. He points his left hand towards the unfortunate girl, indicating that he has miraculously saved her. The girl and her family must have attributed her lucky escape to the saint. The painting would have been commissioned by them and then offered to the Basilica of St. Nicholas as an act of thanks.

 

6. Fall From a Balcony, Mexican, 19th Century

fall from balcony votive offering
Fall From a Balcony, Anonymous, c. 1803, via Philadelphia Museum of Art

 

Christian painted offerings spread from Europe to the Americas through Spanish colonialism in the Early Modern period, as well as the traditions that settlers brought with them. They became especially popular forms of expressing devotion and to this day continue to have cultural importance in Latin America.

 

Now, they are more commonly known as retablos and are typically painted on metal. This earlier example, however, made in Mexico in 1803, is oil on canvas. It shows the progression of a miraculous turn of events. A young woman, identified in the inscription as a maidservant named Barbara Rico, falls through a collapsed balcony with a two-year-old baby.

 

As with the Italian girl saved by Saint Nicholas, Barbara luckily survives. She is shown for a second time, crouched on the floor while the baby looks up at her with outstretched arms. The plate, jug, and cutlery she had been holding all lie scattered at her feet, also miraculously intact. In the corner, a heavenly apparition of the Virgin Mary looks over the woman and child she has just saved. While this and the Saint Nicholas painting were produced centuries apart in totally different cultural contexts, they share the same basic layout of a disaster and an interceding saint in the corner. In fact, panels produced even later still retain the same elements.

 

7. Votive Offering of Saint Nicholas Interceding in a Cart Accident, Mexican, 1930s

tolentino painting mexican votive offering
Votive offering dedicated to San Nicolás de Tolentino, Anonymous, 1936, in Museo Frida Kahlo, Mexico City, via Google Arts and Culture

 

This retablo belongs to Frida Kahlo’s extensive collection of over 450 painted offerings. She was deeply inspired by them, finding inspiration in their themes surrounding religion, life, and death (Castro-Sethness, 2005). This is unsurprising considering Kahlo’s own history of illness and near-death experiences. At the age of 18, she was involved in a bus accident that left her with life-long medical issues. This retablo dating from 1936 may have therefore been particularly resonant for her. Saint Nicholas of Tolentino is once again depicted. This time, he intercedes during a cart accident. Like the nineteenth-century painted offering, there is an inscription outlining the miracle and giving thanks. It explains that in 1934, Saint Nicholas saved the lives of three men, Jesús García, Antonia Ávila, and Benito, after their cart “overturned with everything and the mules.”

 

The men lie fallen on the ground, one of them only visible by his feet poking out from underneath the overturned cart. One mule is on its back, while the others stand on their hind legs in fear. Above the disastrous scene, Saint Nicholas stands on a floating cloud. His calm demeanor offsets the panic of the accident below, emphasizing that there is no need to fear: his intercession will protect the victims. This is incredibly similar to the Renaissance votive offering dedicated to Saint Nicholas. The fact that the tradition has continued in popular devotion up to the Modern period shows the power that painted votive offerings undeniably have for the faithful.

 

Votive offerings are incredibly diverse and wide-ranging, spanning through the history of art. The examples here show that throughout Western history, both ancient and modern, votive offerings have been used to represent the common human expression of hope and gratitude in the face of struggle. The fact that they continue to inspire people in the modern era is a testament to how special these objects are.



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By Eve CobbBA (Hons) History of Art (in progress)Eve is an art history student at the University of Cambridge, with wide interests ranging from the Medieval and Renaissance to the fin de siècle. She is a particular fan of Christian iconography and looks forward to pursuing this interest once she begins her MA in Medieval Studies. She is currently enjoying researching Anglo-Saxon art for her final year. Outside of her studies, Eve enjoys illustration, going to galleries, and reading essays and poetry.