A pieta (from the Italian word ‘pieta’, meaning ‘compassion’) is an image of Mary grieving the deceased Jesus Christ. A desperate mother cradling her murdered son. The image remains recurrant in art today. We made a selection of images that we found particularly striking:
A lecture at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague on good and evil closed with a ritual performed by Winti priestess Nana (Marian Markelo). A few weeks later, I went to meet her to find out more about Winti.
What is Winti exactly?
It's a way of life that deals with the balance between yourself, nature and the people around you, your ancestors and your spiritual mentors. You can turn to Winti for support at any given point in your life.
Is it a religion?
Not when you compare it to Western religions: there is no leader, there are no writings, and it’s not institutionalised. If you consider religion to be about connecting, you could call Winti a religion. The word religion has many meanings.
Where do you find Winti?
Winti originated in Suriname, and it’s comparable to Santeria in Cuba and Candomblé in Brazil.It deals with nature, living people and the people on the other side of life (in Winti they are with us). Nature is the main focus, it's about everything that is a part of nature but also about the people that no longer posses their physical bodies.
The western world is completely reliant on rationality, on facts measurable through clear cause and effect. Scientists have led us to believe that things exist only when they can be measured. Because of this way of thinking, we have lost sight of so much. People have grown estranged from nature and from who they truly are. They focus on everything around them, but not on themselves and nature.
Winti is a model for harmony, it ends contradictions: people who are here have to communicate with people on the other side.
What does nature mean in Winti?
The Winti see humans as advanced beings of nature and if we start with ourselves we'll be able to set the right examples for others. When I perform my rituals I make sure the waste material is dealt with properly, in the garbage or in the forest. It starts with the little things: like not dumping your rubbish just anywhere, not spitting on the earth, keeping yourself and your property clean. Otherwise the gods will be reluctant to approach you, they wouldn't visit a dirty place.
People are too involved with the superficial, think that nature is theirs, and that they posses the material world.
How did Winti come to originate in Suriname?
Winti is truly Surinamese. It finds its origin in the time of slavery. In Suriname different groups of people were mixed and Suriname succeeded in creating a whole out of all those African elements: Winti. Until 1979 the practice was prohibited by the Dutch, which meant that many elements of Winti were lost.
What made you get involved with winti?
I wasn't raised with Winti, my mother was a member of the church and my grandfather was even a preacher during the time of slavery. Winti has always been with me: when I was thirteen years old I had to clean the chicken shed, I sat down there quietly. I heard a voice inside me say: 'you already know everything you need to know, you're still a little girl, but we're going to make sure you'll know everything. The supernatural is inside you.'
I went inside and told my mother: 'I won't be going to church anymore.' My mother and father supported their children to do what they wanted to do and to focus on the things they were good at. They accepted our individuality.
One day, my mother sent me to the market to buy fish. I wore nice American clothes that I had picked myself. Yes, I like to show off a little. A man paid me a compliment, 'O little girl, you look so beautiful.' 'It's none of your business,' I answered. I didn't accept his compliment. He kept on repeating his words. It bothered me. I had a nice bike with a little bag on the front, I collected stones thinking if the man would bother me again I'd throw those stones at him.
But right when I wanted to throw a stone at him, the man suddenly stood at the other side of the river. This was not good! I biked home as fast as I could and when I arrived my mother told me I was rude and impolite: you shouldn't throw stones at old men, you should say thank you when someone gives you a compliment.
Later in life, I decided to move to the interior of Suriname to work as a nurse. Three days before I let I was asleep and had the following experience - it was not a dream, but an observation. In my sleep a man approached me, he was made out of bronze, he looked beautiful. He told me: you're going to Stoeli [an island deep within Suriname] and I will introduce you to all the people you need to meet.
People were waiting for us all around the shore and the man would say: this is the one, this is her! In a big wide-open field men and women were circled around an iron pot, cooking. The man said: I'm going to put my hand inside and you should do the same. I put my hand inside the pot. That man took hold of me, I looked at him, at his smile, and saw he was the man from the forest.
That dream put me in a trance and I screamed so loud that the neighbour came and forced the door. She recognised that what was going on was Winti. When I came to, she had arranged all kinds of things around me: pimba (white clay), gin, a squash. She told me: ‘Girl, you need to do something, you have Winti, you have to tell your mother.’
Who is this man?
This Winti is a god of war, he very manly. It means that I'm not afraid of anything. As a kid these qualities made me rude and strong-minded. You see, you can’t ever really choose your way, it was always in me and in my destiny. You receive skills and insights to be able to do what you are supposed to do, to reach your destination and on the way, the Wintis will find you. That's how you reach faith, or your destination, with help of the Wintis, the Jorkas, and the spirits of your ancestors.
My guide is a Kromanti Winti and I love him—he’s a beautiful sculptured bronze man, and he’s strong. Although I am a woman, his power gives me a masculine strength.
But a god of war sounds frightening to me, does he contribute to the good in the world?
This Winti is a Kromanti, a god of war, a thunder god with knowledge of herbs and rituals. Although this might sound negative, one must keep in mind that during slavery the power of the Kromanti was necessary—they were fearless and heroic spirits. Where battle is necessary they come, they take action and they clear up the mess.
When I'm in need, he will take over. In Amsterdam, I was attacked by two men and the Winti took over. I call him god of war because of those qualities. It's a force that was given to me by my enslaved grandparents.
And through the Kromanti you became a Winti priestess, how did that happen?
We performed rituals in the outback of Suriname to properly initiate me and give me tools. I know what to do with them. As an initiation you marry your Winti, I receive energy from within, also to help others.
How do you see, from the perspective of Winti, the role of the artist?
In the west, spirituality is on the sidelines. The emphasis on the material has not only brought prosperity, but also an imbalance between it and the immaterial, which is vital to society. Where we stand today, the artists’ role is to revive the immaterial and spiritual to bring society back to balance
Soft, pale pink, and firm. God’s buttocks are glorious. How could they not be, this is God we’re talking about! They were revealed to me in Verborgen musea – Erotische kunst by Peter Woditsch (2008), a documentary about secret erotic art collections. In the film, professor Charles Méla speaks of the divine behind painted by Michelangelo in the fifteenth century in the Sistine Chapel. Approximately four million people view this behind every year. How did Michelangelo dare? Did the patron Pope Sixtus IV simply not notice it, did he tolerate it in the name of artistic freedom, or was he well aware and appreciated it as a gag? In all nonchalance, Michelangelo casually reveals the creator’s butt. It’s almost as though they wound up on the painting by accident, like in a snapshot taken where God, after creating the sun and the moon and the elements, spins around abruptly so that a flash of buttocks is seen through the fluttering of his robes.
It’s almost unbelievable to think that in the heart of Vatican City, Michelangelo’s God has been floating in this compromising position above the heads of robed clergymen and the tourists who are required by the pope to cover their shoulders and knees. Funnily enough, I noticed nothing when standing under Michelangelo’s fresco as a schoolgirl years ago. If a tour guide had pointed and said, ‘Look, God’s butt!’ I would probably have found this a very extraordinary view, but on my own and without the help of language, I completely overlooked it. I saw what I expected to see: pious art.
Other museums manage their pagan erotic art in a different manner. In Villa Borghese in Rome, for example, there’s a sculpture of a hermaphrodite sleeping on his or her side. The side on which both breasts and penis are visible is faced towards the wall. The unknowing visitor sees only the back, and remains impervious to its dual gender. If I think back to my youthful disinterest, I’d almost think that Villa Borghese could have saved itself the effort of rotating the sculpture.
Jean Michel Traimond, guide at the Louvre and at the Musée d’Orsay in Parijs, often notices that people seem oblivious to what they’re really looking at. If it were up to him, it would stay that way, because young women, children, and prudes should not be confronted with sex in the museum. One of his examples of such a sinful work is a centaur embracing Bacchante by the Swedish sculptor, Sergel. On one side, the centaur holds the arm of a priestess, but you’ll see that the other hand is laid on her behind with one finger stroking her anus, the other one touching her vagina. According to Jean Michel Traimond, most museum visitors never notice this, because they perceive the museum as a venerable institution with no room for primitive urges.
‘Art is for the bourgeoisie, a delight for the elite. It’s unthinkable to the greater public that something as ‘low’ as erotica could also be considered art.’
The longer you think about it, the stranger it becomes: the only ones who behave in the museum are the visitors, the sculptures themselves are stiff with sex and violence. I think I’ll go to the Rijksmuseum and the Allard Piersson soon, I’m curious what I’ll see now that my eyes are finally open.
With thanks to Lucy, roaming art platform.
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.
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
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.