‘Graces Received’ curator to speak Tuesday about how to read meanings in Catholic folk art

Guest post courtesy of IU Newsroom intern Emily Davis:

Leonard Primiano, curator of the exhibition “Graces Received: Painted and Metal Ex-Votos from Italy,” will speak at 4:30 p.m. on Feb. 17 at Indiana University’s Mathers Museum of World Cultures.

ex voto of ship

A maritime ex-voto is a painting that was used to show gratitude to a saint for bringing a ship to safety.

The current exhibition, comprised entirely of Primiano’s personal collection, offers more than mere examples of past religious traditions.

It tells intimate stories.

Ex-votos are voluntary offerings made to a saint in order to fulfill a vow or show gratitude for a prayer received. This traditional Roman Catholic ritual is often expressed through objects or paintings. The pieces on display were created between 1832 and 1959, and were collected in Italy.

“The exhibit is a great example of objects that have a lot of stories to tell,” said Judith Kirk, assistant director at the Mathers Museum. “They tell stories not only about particular individuals and events in their lives, but also about the societies they were a part of.”

In the lecture “How to Read Catholic Folk Art,” Primiano will discuss what can be considered religious folk art and its unique expression within Roman Catholic culture. On a more personal note, he will talk about what it means to acquire and live with such historical objects in the 21st century.

Primiano is a professor and chair of the religious studies department at Cabrini College in Radnor, Penn. The scholar and folklorist specializes in the practice and expression of religion in popular culture and the media, something he calls “vernacular religion.”

Visual narratives

The exhibition features both oil paintings and metallic embodiments.

When you look at the paintings — which are no larger than a sheet of printer paper — you feel like the witness to extremely personal moments.

ex voto of cows

In their ex-votos, farmers often commissioned artists to depict the health and well-being of their animals.

An individual who wanted to show gratitude for a miracle would commission an artist. A painting might depict the scene of a bedridden family member, along with the image of the saint who cured him shining in the corner.

There also are several popular sub-genres of ex-voto paintings. For example, maritime ex-votos depict ships in troubled waters along with the saint who brought them home safely.

Metallic embodiments also were used as offerings. Some anatomical embodiments show an injury, such as a broken arm or a leg that was healed by a saint. Other objects depict a full body, such as a baby that perhaps was commissioned as a plea on behalf of a child.

Emblazoned hearts form a separate group of embodiments. Each is intended to show the sacred heart of Jesus, remarking upon the evidence of divinity.

After a miracle

To accompany Primiano’s collection, a smaller exhibition of Coptic ex-votos from the Birnbaum Collection is being featured in “After a Miracle.”

sacred heart ex voto

Emblazoned metallic hearts found at a Coptic Church in Egypt are nearly identical to those produced in Italy.

These ex-votos were found in Egypt but have striking similarities to those from the Italian collection.

They are so similar that there is speculation that some of the pieces were molded from the Italian objects. Their similarity also could suggest trade and the possibility that these pieces were produced in Italy and sold to Egyptians.

“The fact that these exist reflects the connection between these countries,” Kirk said.

The Birnbaum Collection is a fairly new collection that was donated to the museum by Dee Birnbaum.

The pieces shown in both exhibits are meant to challenge viewers to decipher between the sacred and the seemingly mundane. These tangible tokens of gratitude help us realize how people once expressed their devotion, and they lead us to ask the question, how do we express our emotions and beliefs today?


“Graces Received” and “After a Miracle” are on display at the Mathers Museum through May 22. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free.

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