The Bard Graduate Center hosted a symposium on April 28 and 29 entitled “Ex Voto: Votive Images Across Cultures.”

Interview with Ittai Weinryb

On April 28-29, BGC assistant professor, Ittai Weinryb, is organizing a two-day international symposium “Ex Voto: Votive Images Across Cultures” at the Bard Graduate Center. The symposium is the starting point for a large exhibition that is scheduled to open at the BGC galleries in January 2015

Another of his projects, “Images at Work: Image and Efficacy from Antiquity to the Rise of Modernity,” a two-day international symposium at the Max Planck Institute in Florence, which dealt with image, magic, and efficacy, will appear as a special issue of W86th—the BGC’s new journal. Among his forthcoming articles are one coming out in Word & Image journal and another in the inaugural volume of Cultural Histories of the Material World book series published by the BGC and the University of Michigan Press.

Dr. Weinryb received his BA from Tel Aviv University and MA and PhD degrees from Johns Hopkins University where he was the recipient of the Adolf Katzenellenbogen Prize. He was also the Robert and Nancy Hall Fellow at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, and Max Planck Doctoral Fellow at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence. In 2010, he received the Kress-International Center of Medieval Art research award to continue his work on the Bronze doors of medieval Italy.

What is the Ex Voto Symposium?

The phenomenon of humans leaving votive objects to a saint or a deity can be found across histories, religions, and cultures: from archaic Greece to our era, from the Himalayas to Brazil. Given as a token of gratitude for a miracle performed or offered as a vow, the ex voto is the most basic and fundamental form of material exchange between humans and their deities.

This symposium is one of the few examples of trying to think about these objects and their relation to culture. In many cases, when scholars study, for instance, shrines, they focus on their architecture or the cult in which a deity is worshipped but they have not traditionally studied the objects that people have left there, except to decipher them as structures of exchange and uncover their religious meanings.

In its most basic form, this is the study of folk art— we are focusing on what people deposit in the shrine. Interestingly, while votive objects are most often things that people make by themselves and leave in the shrine as part of their relationship with the deity, they also represent early examples of mass production. Objects were produced and then personalized by the consumer with an inscription or by the insertion of a personal object.

How did you get interested in this project?

As a medievalist traveling the churches of Europe I noticed the shear amount of objects that people had left on the altars and continue to leave up until the present day. Today, you may think of candles as one example of this; however, across cultures people have left objects that symbolize a head, or a torso, the hand, or the foot, in an attempt to heal a budding physical problem, for instance. You can find representations of infants, of breasts (for people with cancer), and eyes, which were, of course, very important. I have many examples that are Christian. I also have examples from Ancient Greece, as well as present-day South America and Asia. People deposited masses and masses of objects on their shrines. Some of these objects are beautiful works of art. For instance, Nike of Samothrace, the famous sculpture in the Louvre, was an ex voto object that was, we think, offered by Rhodian sailors to a shrine in thanks for a naval victory.

Who are the people involved?

In the symposium , we have divided the question of the votive objects into both geographical periods and historical regions. Two scholars will talk about Greek and Roman cultures; two on Renaissance Italy, two on the Germanic nations and northern Europe; and two on Asia. One of these will talk about the Ema tablets in Shinto culture in Japan, and the other, John Guy, of the Metropolitan, will talk about the Buddhist votive tablet in Thailand. Two other scholars will focus on South America. One of them, Clara Bargellini from Mexico City, will talk about the ex voto and votive arts in the sixteenth- and seventeenth–century colonialism of New Spain. As a special treat, Diane Fane of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, will be talking about edible votive objects, which should be most interesting. In addition, there will be a scholar talking about the tradition of votive objects in Islamic culture. This scholar, Christiane Gruber, was recently in Iran collecting material, so it will be a very fresh presentation focusing on a lot of modern day activities relating to votive objects in that country.

Finally, Kristin Hass will speak on secular votives—things that we have learned, for instance, from the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, 9/11 memorials, the Oklahoma City bombing memorials, and even Lady Diana memorials. The symposium will uncover the question as to why people do these things. What is interesting about votive giving is its structural consistency. It is something that has existed since the beginning of time to today, crossing cultures and religions. It is something that is around us. It is not something that is celebrated in art galleries nor mentioned in television specials. It is something that is a part of daily existence. It is material culture in its most down-to-earth folk-like aspect.

Where will this lead?

The symposium will also mark the launch of a bigger project that will result in an exhibition centering on ex votos in the main exhibition space of the BGC that is, for now, scheduled to open in 2015. This exhibition will, we hope, draw its material from private collections as well as from major museum collections in Europe.

Both the symposium and the exhibition will bring together a new appreciation for ex votos within the context of material culture and, we hope, promote the comparative study of material culture.