Ex-voto of Josefa Peres Maldonado. Probably Aguascalientes, Mexico, 1777. Oil on canvas. 27 1/4 × 38 1/2 in. (69.2 × 97.8 cm). Davis Museum at Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA, 2004.10.

From the Exhibition:
Agents of Faith: Votive Objects in Time and Place

This superb example of an ex-voto painting shows nine people attending to Josefa Peres Maldonado. Lying in bed, her face barely covered, she endures a horrific operation for breast cancer, perhaps the first such operation in Mexico. The surgeon brutally severs her left breast, accompanied by an assistant carrying scissors, three friars (one clearly Franciscan), and four women, probably family members: the one wearing a rebozo (shawl) may be her mother. The household furnishings reveal European and local styles, including French-inspired rococo details, such as the headboard and the frame around the inscription. The painted or lacquered folding screen provides some privacy and protects the bed from drafts. Several religious icons appear on the altar and the wall to the right; a shaggy wool rug with a zig-zag design animates that side of the canvas. The open door with a key in the lock surely bears a symbolic message.

Ex-votos, from the Latin term for votive objects, are devotional paintings commemorating the commissioner’s miraculous salvation from an illness or tragic event. European in origin, they were extraordinarily popular in New Spain from the late seventeenth century through Independence. This rare eighteenth-century example was painted on canvas; by the middle of the nineteenth century, ex-votos were supported on smaller tin sheets (known as retablos) instead of canvas. Although text blocks provide narrative information and dates, ex-votos were rarely signed, and the artist here is unknown. While the sensitive rendition of the figures’ faces and costumes reveals extensive training, the use of perspective is somewhat rudimentary, perhaps an indication of the artist’s provincial training.

The inscription below the bloody scene clarifies several details, including the story’s tragic end: “Doña Josefa Peres Maldonado offers this monument of her gratitude to the Most Holy Christ of the Oak, venerated in the Church of Triana, and to the Most Holy Virgin Mary of El Pueblo, in perpetual memory of the benefit, due to her piety, that resulted from an operation that took place on the 25th of April, 1777, when the surgeon Don Pedro Maillé removed six cancerous tumors from her breast, in the presence of the gentlemen and ladies depicted on this canvas.” The smaller text was added later: “Although the wound closed perfectly on the 25th of July, 1777, other accidents befell her from which she died on Friday, the 5th of September, at 3 p.m., with clear signs of the patronage of the Holy Image and of her devotion.” 1

The patron saints mentioned in the text are linked to churches in Aguascalientes, a city in the wealthy agricultural zone known as the Bajío.2 Josefa Peres Maldonado y González de Hermosillo was born in 1736 in Cuquío, Jalisco, but by 1751 she was living in Aguascalientes, where she married Nicolás Fernando Flores de la Torre González de Hermosillo in 1751; they had six children by 1766, including two daughters and a son, who later became a leading politician.3 Curiously, the inscription refers to Josefa by her father’s last names only. Research has uncovered the fact that Maillé was a French-born doctor who received his degree in Montpelier in 1750; he likely brought surgical equipment and new procedures with him when he emigrated to New Spain.4

The ex-voto was probably intended for the Templo del Señor del Encino (1773–96) in the Triana district of Aguascalientes, the home of the blackened image of Jesus visible in the center of the altar. At some point, perhaps torn and soot-stained, it was removed, probably by a priest intent on renovating the interior of the church. It was acquired by the French Surrealist poet André Breton during his four-month stay in Mexico in 1938; a photograph shows Breton seated in Diego Rivera’s San Angel studio with the painting leaning against the wall next to works by Frida Kahlo.5 Breton also purchased examples of Mexican folk art, particularly Day of the Dead toys, as well as nineteenth-century paintings by anonymous artists.

In 1939, after returning to Paris, Breton exhibited the works he purchased in Mexico, alongside paintings by Kahlo and photographs by Manuel Alvarez Bravo, in an exhibition entitled Mexique, and he contributed an article on Mexico to a special issue of the Surrealist magazine Minotaure.6 Both the exhibition and the article featured the 1777 ex-voto, which remained in Breton’s collection until his death. This ex-voto is thus not only a rare and compelling example of Mexican colonial art, but it also played a key role in Breton’s personal attempt to internationalize the Surrealist movement and thus served, through its public display, to confirm European stereotypes of Mexico as a bizarre and violent place.

James Oles, Senior Lecturer in Art at Wellesley College, is a specialist in Latin American art, focusing on modern Mexican art and architecture.

1.The full inscription in Spanish reads: Este monumento de su gratitud ofrece D[oña] Josefa Peres Maldonado al S[antí]s[i]mo Christo de el Encimo, Venerado en su Yg[lesi]a de Traiana y a la S[antí]s[i]ma Virgen Maria de el Pueblo, para perpetua memoria del Beneficio, que reconose á su piedad, en la operacion, que se le hizo el dia 25 de Abril de 1777 a[ño]s por el sirujano D[o]n Pedro Maillè; cortandole el pecho con seis tumores de Cancro, que tenia en el, en precencia de los S[eño]res y S[eño]ras que se manifiestan en este lienso. [In small script below:] Haviendo cerrado perfectm[en]te la llaga el dia 25 de Julio de 77 a[ño]s le sobrevinieron otros accidentes de los que murio el dia 9 de [septiem]bre Biernes a las tres de la tarde con señales claras del Patrocinio de esta Sagrada imagen y de su salvacion.

2.Lisa Pon and James F. Amatruda, “Breast cancer between faith and medicine: the Peres Maldonado ex-voto,” Medical Humanities 36, no. 2 (December 2010): 112 –13. They identify the figures on the altar on p. 113.

3.Xavier A. López y de la Peña, “Primera mastectomía en América por cáncer de mama: Aguascalientes, México, 1777,” Gaceta Médica de México 150 (2014): 473.


5.The dealer Ramis Barquet showed me the photograph of Breton over a decade ago, but he has been unable to trace its current whereabouts or provide a reproduction.

6.André Breton, Mexique, exhibition catalogue, Paris: Galerie Renou & Colle, 1939; Breton, “Souvenir du Mexique,” Minotaure 12–3 (1939): 31–52.