A votive is an offering made usually as an act of worship to a deity or a saint in fulfillment of a vow or when expressing a vow or a wish. The custom of manufacture and use of anatomical votives was prolific in ancient Greece and Rome from 400BC to 400AD. These offerings were made to deities of health and medicine, either in the hope for a cure or in thanks for one. These often life size fragments of the human body were usually modeled in terracotta although materials including metals and stone were used for those that could afford them. They were placed in temples dedicated to the healing gods of the time, most notably, Asklepios.
Most parts of the body were represented by these anatomical votives, each part adopting various theories for their use for healing. Votives have been found depicting practically every part of the body, both internally and externally, although eyes, head, hands, breasts, male genitals and feet were most common.
Despite the rise of Hippocratic medicine, only the wealthy could afford a Greek doctor. Although adhering to entirely differing principles, the two beliefs of healing divinities and Hippocratic medicine co existed within society.Gradually the saints of the Christian church adopted the powers of the Greek and Roman deities.In modern day, anatomical votives are small metal religious charms that are pinned or hung at altars and shrines in thankgiving for a miracle received. Modern Catholic and Orthodox European votives are often referred to as ex votos, short for ex voto suscepto meaning “from the vow made” in Latin. In colonial Latin America, they are referred to as Milagros meaning ‘miracles’ in Spanish.
They are commonly used in two types of ways; a person may ask a favor from a saint (known as a ‘manda’ in Mexico) and in order to repay the saint after the favor has been granted, they will make a pilgrimage to the shrine of that saint and leave the Milagro there. Alternatively, people might carry a Milagros with them for good luck, especially if it has been blessed by a spiritual healer.They can range in size from less than ½ inch to several inches and vary in style and material depending on the cultures that produce them. Most are from Peru, Germany, Mexico and Italy ranging in metals from silver, pewter, copper, nickel and other metals.The meanings of the votives are always up to interpretation. For example a heart could represent a heart condition or affairs of the heart. Equally a leg could mean arthritis or traveling, or a penis could mean fertility.
Internal body parts are usually offered when asking for help with a particular ailment.
Eye Milagros are commonly associated with the Mexican saint Santa Lucia whom people make mandas to her about eye conditions. Eyes can also be attached to the image of the deceased to represent the spirit of that person watching over us.Images:
- Breast votive, courtesy of the private collection of Elizabeth Anderson
- Terracotta votives, Wellcome images
- Italian silver stomach votive, Tesoros Trading Company
- Brass vertebrae votive, courtesy of the private collection of Elizabeth Anderson
- Brass Abdomen votive, courtesy of the private collection of Elizabeth Anderson
- Variety of anatomical votives, courtesy of the private collection of Elizabeth Anderson
- Nickel copper anatomical torso votive is also Tesoros Trading Company
- Eye votive, courtesy of the private collection of Elizabeth Anderson