241 Things

1000 Things is a subjective encyclopedia of inspirational ideas, things, people, and events.

Read the most recent articles, or mail the editorial team to contribute.

Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

Tourist in Holy Mud, Chimayo, New Mexico,
Tourist in Holy Mud, Chimayo, New Mexico,

Mud flourishes where cold and warm meet. Travelling through the American Southwest state of New Mexico – in a time where adobe only referred to a local building technique involving sun dried clay – we arrived at El Santuario de Chimayo, a mud sanctuary. In a Spanish colonial church, Indians erected an altar behind a small, inscrutable hole: just lke Anish Kapoor’s hole at the Museum de Pont . But there’s one difference, the hole in Chimayo contained Holy Mud, as healing as the water of Lourdes. How this came to be? In 1810, a New Mexican friar discovered glowing earth on a hill.

He began to dig and found a crucifix that he brought the next village, Santa Cruz. But it disappeared from there three times, only to be found in the same old mud hole. The message was clear. The crucifix was to stay there. And thus, the chapel rose around it. It turned out that the mud was holy (not to be confused with Holy Mud, a Dutch chocolate mousse dessert) and healing. Crutches left abandoned at the wall of the church testify to the healing power of the sludge. On a miracle website I find a story of a girl who was cured of fifteen tumours in her leg after applying Holy Mud mixed with her own saliva. She’s now plays cello in a Philharmonic orchestra.

Elegguan, the mediator made from mud, vodou Santeria, Cuba.

Mud seems to be the catalyst of transformation. In Vodou rituals, packets of clay and earth are made to influence events (like putting your nemesis on the wrong track, for example.) Eleggua is an egg-shaped pointed head formed from clay, with shells for eyes. The evil Humpty Dumpty is part of the Carribbean pantheon of Santeria and acts as the guard at (muddy) crossovers and mediates between the upper- and underworld.

The Golem as a character in the first German expressionist 1920 film adaptation, by Carl Boese and Wegener Pauil.

Likewise, in other ancient tales of animism, an inferior being rises from the mud. A figure in the Jewish Kaballa is the Golem: a soulless, formless mass. During the 16th century, Rabbi Juda Löw ben Betsabel of Prague documented a number of Golem stories. Extremely holy persons in close proximity to God were given the wisdom and power to create life. But what they were able to create from mud remained a shadow of His Creation. After all, Golem, the mud figure, couldn’t speak. In later literary versions, the rabbi Rabbi Juda Löw is credited as having shaped Golem himself from the muddy banks of the Moldau. The creature would help the poor, similar to the robot that Karel Capek, also Czech, would later invent. Of course, his tale ended badly. This is where the Jewish idiom “olem golem” derives from: man is the golem, man is a machine. Or, in other words, the world is an evil place. In the latest postmodern, post-historical, post-religious incarnation, Golem is a malevolent turtle-like character in the Japanese game of Pokémon.

Sadhu´s, holy yogi´s covered with mud.

Catedral de la Almuneda. It was in this church that I first came across ex-votos without knowing what I was looking at. Fascinated, I stared at a wall where dozens of beige coloured shapes were hung. Forms made of paraffin wax that seemed like they’d been moulded straight from a human body. I could discern eyes, a liver, a heart, limbs, breasts. I took a few photographs.

When I looked back at the photos, I realised this was the first time I’d ever witnessed such an exceptional presentation of blind faith. A faith in a higher power that could protect, heal, and that one could show thanks to. That is if you, as a faithful believer, were given the opportunity to hang an object of the sort on the great wall of the church.

Upon my return to The Netherlands, I asked the curator of the Catherijne convenant in Utrecht what’d I’d seen in Spain. He told me they were ex-votos, which literally means: to offer out devotion. Ex-votos are usually small objects, sometimes casts, other times paintings, drawings, or photographs. But essentially, they can be anything, as long as the're offered with the immense faith that someone or something in the heavens above is peering down with compassion.

Ex voto painting from Italy, bought in Venice

In the old days, the very rich could grant the church a candle as large as their weight in wax. As long as the candle burned, their existence was ensured.

Years later, a friend and I took a trip through middle Europe in search of ex-votos. We came to chapels where we found hundreds of wooden legs stacked in piles by grateful believers who might have re-grown a leg, or had otherwise regained their powers of mobility.

Unbelievably beautiful and naively painted images depicting the rescue of a loved one from a fire, or surviving a serious illness. Often in a corner of the painting there would be a saint who lovingly looks down upon the scene being carried out underneath him

Art work on the basis of ex votos
This trip led to an artwork in the courthouse in Groningen. A place where worldly power prevails, but where truth is still verified by swearing on the bible. You never know. A place where the air of the visitor room is pregnant with a sense of justice, protection, and mercy. Where each object might possibly be used as evidence, which is precisely the opposite of faith: attempting to convince the believer without evidence.
Along the way I came across ex-votos everywhere. Sometimes they were needy: pleading letters in a Cuban church and at a place of pilgrimage in Wallonia. Others were placed out of gratitude, like the long row of motorcycle helmets or the altar filled with photos of car accidents at a church in Padua. Or photos of fishermen in a small chapel on the Flemish coast.

Even in The Netherlands, with its ceaseless religious wars, there are places where ex-votos can be found. Of course, the grand St. Jan’s Church in Den Bosch is one of them, where countless metal trinkets are hung, as well as the St. Bavo Church in Haarlem. Here, a number of exceptional, carefully crafted little ships hang motionless—no , they float motionless—under the great arches. They are a testament to the faith in a higher power that will keep the fishermen safe until homecoming.

We’re all familiar with the search for protection or the desire to express our gratitude to someone or something. All of us hope for a higher power, for someone or something to see us. Maybe each one of us has our own, private ex-voto, hidden away in a secret spot of devotion. And maybe it doesn’t matter who you thank or who it is that protects you. Maybe all that matters that this object exists, and that it's you that knows it's there.

Various ex votos, including ex votos of wax from Fatima, Portugal

Emma Kunz was a popular healer and visionary. People came to her for her healing powers or to ask her questions about their futures. To help them, Kunz would make drawings. During lengthy sessions, some lasting up to twenty-four hours, Kunz would use her artworks as a map of the future. These maps acted like a navigational system to explore existential questions, as well as a system to diagnose her patients.

Emma Kunz

Kunz was never formally trained as an artist and only began drawing when she was late into her forties; intricately drawn large mandalas, complex colours, and variations in lines. While drawing, she would fall into a trance where she would not eat or drink, and fixated herself completely on her patient or the question she was searching to answer. Using a pendulum, she would mark co-ordinates to signal beginning and end points on graph paper. She would then trace billions of lines between these points.

Due to her immense dedication to her drawings, she was able to access dimensions that transcend the consciousness of the every day. The minute precision of these drawings hearkens to meticulous mathematical compositions that, besides their beauty, contain the universe’s secret formulas. A segment of reality outside of the reach of our every day consciousness was revealed to Kunz through these abstract patterns. Kunz wasn’t accepted by the mainstream art world during her lifetime.

Art as a definition was far too restrictive for her. Her geometric play was more than just art. She understood the power of the image and it’s ability to act as a tool to initiate the transformation process within human consciousness, and how this could exert its influence onto the world. Despite this awareness, her drawings lay strewn throughout her home and were never meant to be hung on a wall. ‘My work is meant for the 21st century’, she said. And she was right; her work in all its controversy has only now been accepted by the art world.

Kunz stopped drawing in the sixties. She had no need to anymore. Her connection to the cosmos had grown to such an extent that she could directly receive answers to her questions. The borders between earthly contradictions were lifted.