It’s a modern truism that at some point in history organised religion and thaumaturgy i.e. practical magic parted ways — or did it? The New York Times recently ran an art review of an exhibition in NYC at Bard College’s Graduate Center Gallery called “Agents Of Faith: Votive Objects in Time and Place.” This is a collection of ex votos – various sculptures, large and small that are “offered to” various deities, demi-gods, saints while requesting financial favors, physical or mental healing, success in various enterprises etc. AND then in gratitude when the boons are offered. This is a practice, the exhibit documents with examples dating from the 18th millenia B.C. to the present representing religious traditions from Buddhism, to contemporary African animism, pre-Hellenistic Greece, and multiple variants of Christianity. The review begins:
“Walk into the big art-packed churches of Rome and Mexico City and you can spot the most valuable image instantly. It’s not the great painting or sculpture described in the Blue Guide. As often as not, it’s the smallish Madonna over there in the corner with a bank of candles burning in front of her and the handwritten notes, photographs and silver medals attached to her cloak. While tourists moon over masterpieces, local churchgoers and visiting pilgrims worship her.
“They’re the people who have attached the notes to the Virgin’s cloak, describing their troubles and asking for aid, and the ones who have given her medals thanking her for help received. These add-on items are by no means peripheral to her image. They’re part of it, essential to it, evidence of her charisma.”