A person wishing to thank a higher power, usually for a miraculous intervention that had saved them from certain death or interminable suffering, would ask a local artist to paint her story. The resulting panel would show an image that captured the commissioner’s anguish, along with the divine presence of her savior, usually floating ethereally in space. The compositions are usually bordered by a story, penned in looping cursive or scribbled in thick paint, describing the tale.
In one ex-voto
that I happened upon, a man stands in his pajamas, in a field rimmed by mountains. He’s frozen in fear and staring at a UFO that radiates a purple beam of light containing a big-eyed alien. Over the man’s head, on a puffy cloud, levitates the Virgin de Guadalupe. The few sentences painted below the scene reveal that the saint rescued the man from abduction and the life of a mute: “The day January 14, 1965 with this I give the most sincere thanks to the Virgin of Guadalupe, who gave me the miracle of regaining speech after I saw a ship with an extraterrestrial coming out of it and was left speechless.” It was signed “Sr. Juan Manuel Gutierrez..., 20 April of 1984.”
The piece, like all the ex-votos I’ve come across, is intensely personal—filled with one man’s fears, idiosyncrasies, and spiritual leanings. But the ex-voto tradition began long before the ’80s, or even Kahlo’s time in the 1930s and ’40s. In Mexico, they first cropped up in the 16th century, during the colonial era, as Catholicism spread like wildfire across Latin America. The practice became especially popular, however, in the throes and aftermath of Mexico’s successful battle for independence from Spain in the early 1800s, and again saw a renaissance during the early 1900s, during the Mexican revolutionary war.