241 Things

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

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

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
Armata Christi in a bottle
works of Marc Pantus
Armata Christi in a bottle

The calvary mountain in a bottle.

We all know that image of utmost intrigue of a boat in a bottle. How we delight ourselves in wondering how on earth one could fit the entire ship and its masts, sails, yards, booms, gaffs, bowsprit and rigging through the tiny mouth of a bottle! How very painstaking the task, how immensely disciplined the maker! Let alone the enormous amount of time spent making each separate object.

Although it may seem that way, ships aren’t the only things that have made their way to the bottle. In fact, the bottle is the scene for yet another setting.

In the south of Germany and Austria, entire Golgothas are places inside bottles. Simple wooden carvings of the crucifixion of Christ, framed by Arma Christi, otherwise known as the Instruments of Passion.

The word arma sounds related to weapons, and so it is. For the devoted, these symbols represent the weapons with which Jesus entered his conquest against death from which he emerged victorious.

I’d previously only been familiar with the Instruments of Christ through an interesting painterly theme, namely, the Gregoriusmis. During a holy mass led by Pope Gregorius, Christ magically appeared as the Man of Sorrows. The Arma are scattered around him randomly and in and are painted in a cartoonish fashion on the canvas or panel. There are many instruments. The most important are the cross, the crown of thorns, the whipping post, the cock, nails, a hammer, pliers, dice, a ladder, a lance, a sponge (on a long stick,) but the more fanatic might proceed with the shroud of Veronica, the silver pieces Judas was paid (with or without pouch,) a spitting mouth, a portrait of Pilaus, a punishment tool made of knotted string, a bottle of balm, a king’s mantel, a torch, a Judas kiss, the good and the evil murder, a bucket (for vinegar,) INRI written on a piece of paper, the sun and the moon, a representation of the Denial of Peter, a pitcher and a bowl (in which Pilatus washes his hands of guilt,) a cup (that he can’t let past him,) and my favourite instrument: a sword stuck into an ear.

According to John the Evangelist, that ear belongs to a servant named “Malchus.” In the heat of the battle at the Mount of Olives, where Christ is captured, the hot headed Peter attempts to thwart the situation by striking the high priest’s servant down with his sword, cutting off his ear in the process. This servant’s name was Malchus, and as such, he’s quite comically included in the gospel.

Using these symbols, one can reconstruct the entire story from Christ’s capture in the Mountain of Olives to his crucifixion and subsequent descent from the cross (which explains the presence of an object as mundane as a pair of pliers inside the bottle.) I’m well versed in the passion of Matthew and John. I even know them by heart, albeit in German.This is why: because I’m a professional classical singer, I’ve been singing Bach’s passions for four to three weeks a year since my college days. The passions are performed more in The Netherlands than anywhere else, whether this is St. John or St. Matthew’s version. At this point, it’s likely that I’ve performed the gospel dozens of times, and probably more than a hundred times per passion.

The simple wood carver unleashing his blades onto the blocks of wood in his wintry farmer’s home can find inspiration for the most precious details from St. John’s gospel. He tells us the name of the servant who’s short an ear after his meeting with Peter. He describes the garment that Jesus wears as he is dressed as a saint to be ““Ungenähet, von oben an gewürket, durch und durch.” These bottle of patience makers (“Geduldsflasche,) as they’re also referred to, don’t go as far. Besides the impossibility of really understanding what is meant with “gewürket, durch und durch,” most of these amateur carvers are not quite apt enough at their hobby to be able to go into too much detail with their bottle scenes.The dice might have the right amount of dots, and you won’t mistake the cock for just any old bird, but don’t expect any filigree wood works.

This is folk art. Ever endearing, the bottles start including cut outs from magazines and postcards as the years progress. And to show a bit of skill, cypress-like trees are placed in the bottle. It’s far easier to make than it appears, and although the cypress isn’t specifically mentioned in the gospel, we still understand its purpose in the scene.

In the same areas where the crucifixion is placed within bottles, you’ll find the theme outside the bottle, in large format, hung up in houses. These are called Wetterkreuz, around which entire families would congregate on stormy days and nights when thunder and lightning would threaten the hay and straw decked farms, to pray for God to keep the house from being struck by lightning.

The Eingerichte that I own have all been bought on eBay and have been delivered to me by mail. The most beautiful example has not survived its journey intact. The goodnews is that now own one in which the earthquake (one of Bach’s Mattheus Passion’s most famous scenes) is shown. Now that’s rare.

Just outside Rio there’s an extraordinary museum that holds a private collection of folk art that, according to them, is the largest collection in Brazil. The French Jacques van de Beuque travelled the world and for forty years collected folk art on markets, fairs, and shops. He then found a house, now known as Casa do Pontal, in which to show his collection.

The museum is much cleaner in its presentation than other folk art museums in Rio de Janeiro. Each space contains shelves on which endless amounts of sculptures are grouped, as though the collector simply wanted to own everything without making distinctions. The best part of the collection is almost impossible to find. An inconspicuous door opens to a small room where a hilarious collection of ‘arte erotica’ is hidden away; every day sex scenes are crafted with exaggeration and humour, something that the material qualities of clay are extremely adept at conveying. There was much to see and discover, despite the lights constantly switching off and forcing you to keep walking to activate the sensor.