Ex-voto images: lived religion in visual form


Lena Liepe, Linnaeus University

“In the year 1454 it so happened that Ingrid, servant of master Anders, priest in Värend, had a swollen hand, covered with wounds, that caused her a lot of pain. She was unable to use the hand for any sort of household work. She tried several remedies, but nothing worked. One day she came to the abbey [i.e. the Vadstena abbey]. In the morning mass, she said her usual prayers, and while she was praying, she remembered Lady Catherine, the daughter of Saint Birgitta, and she decided to go to her grave in the hope of being cured. She did this and promised to make an offer of a hand made from wax if she was healed. And when the promise had been made the swelling disappeared before noon and the hand was completely healed. In memory of this she hung a wax hand in honour of God and the blessed Catherine, on account of whose merits she believed herself having been cured (Lundén (ed.) 1981, [48], 67).”

The above episode appears in the collection of miracles, attributed to Catherine of Vadstena and chronicled by the clergymen of the abbey, compiled as part of the process to have her canonized (see Fröjmark 1992, 50–66). The wax hand donated by Ingrid of Värend was not the only such gift Catherine received. A total of 33 offerings, shaped in the likeness of humans, beasts, or objects, are recorded in the miracle collection: twenty whole figures made from silver or wax, including a wax nun; four wax children and one silver child; two wax heads and one silver head; one wax eye; one wax jaw; one wax hand; one wax arm; one wax leg; one wax breast and one silver breast; two wax horses; and one wax spoon.

The 33 wax and silver items are all examples of ex-votos: material artefacts made for offering to a saint or deity as an act of faith, to make a pledge, or fulfill a vow (Weinryb 2018, xi). Ex-votos (from the Latin phrase ex voto suscepto,‘from the vow made’), or votive offerings, could take all kinds of shapes, and also consist of mere lumps of matter; unspecified pieces of wax are frequently mentioned as offerings in the miracle collections (cf. below). A figurative ex-voto image is made in the likeness of the object for which a remedy is being sought: e.g. an aching limb, a sick child, an afflicted horse, or a silver spoon that has gone missing. It is a universal phenomenon: the catalogue of the exhibition Agents of Faith. Votive Objects in Time and Place, held at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery in New York from 2018–2019, documents ex-voto images coming from five continents and dating from prehistory to the present day (Weinryb (ed.) 2018).

Seen from a lived religion perspective, the miracle collections’ mentions of ex-voto images provide rare evidence for a lay visual culture in the Middle Ages of which otherwise practically no evidence has survived. A world of images made by and for common people may have existed, but if so, no physical traces thereof remain today. Admittedly, we cannot be certain that the ex-voto images as a rule were made by the devotees themselves; in particular the silver objects can be assumed to have been made by professional goldsmiths. Thus, the widow of a once blind man recounted how she, upon her husband having been instructed in a dream to make an offer of two silver eyes to St. Brynolf of Skara, went to a goldsmith to have the eyes made. As soon as they were offered at the shrine, the husband’s eyesight was restored (SRS 1871–1876, 171). Wax images, on the other hand, might have been within the capability of the devotees themselves to produce. A Gunnar from Mellby suffered from insanity, but was cured by St. Brynolf after the parish priest had made a vow in his name. According to the testimony given by Gunnar to the commission that investigated the miracle, after he had recovered he made an image in wax (“fecit sibi ymaginem de cera”) as an offer to St. Brynolf (SRS 1871–1876, 168). Whether the ex-voto images were manufactured by the individuals who had experienced the miracles or not, their status as expressions in visual form of lay agency in a devotional context is unquestionable, and unique.

St. Catherine leads the field among Nordic saints whose miracle stories include mention of offerings and votive images made from wax or silver. Next comes Nicolaus of Linköping with 23 recorded ex-votos, whereas the “Helga lösen” group – a gilded-silver sculpture of the Deposition from the Cross, in the Dominican convent church in Stockholm – comes third with eight documented ex-voto offerings. The miracle collection of St. Eric of Sweden mentions four offerings; the collections of St. Birgitta and of Niels of Århus three each; the collection of Brynolf of Skara two offerings; and the miracle collection of St. Henry of Finland one. These numbers do not include the more or less unformed lumps of wax that were frequently presented to the shrines, nor the wax candles that are mentioned in the miracle collections of St. Eric (two), Nicolaus of Linköping (one) and Helga lösen (three) (Lundén 1950, 54–54). A special category of votive offerings are fish and cereal ears made from silver, offered, it may be presumed, in the hope of or as thanksgiving for plentiful hauls and harvests. In his survey of Reformation confiscation protocols Olle Källström records the impounding of eight silver fish and 27 silver cereal ears from churches in Sweden and Finland (Källström 1936; Källström 1943, 136–137; see also Lundén 1950, 55–56).

It should be borne in mind that the records in the miracle collections need not reflect the actual number of ex-votos offered to the shrines. They are the result of the documentation carried out by clerics who had gotten hold of and interviewed pilgrims visiting the shrines. Hence, the ex-votos mentioned were connected to an experienced miraculous healing recounted by the pilgrim, and/or by witnesses able to confirm the authenticity of the account, as recorded by the commission that investigated the application for canonization. Many more ex-votos may have been presented by pilgrims seeking healing or help. If their appeals were unsuccessful, or they simply escaped the clergy’s notice, their offerings were not registered in the miracle collections.

The votives are long gone, but a few visual sources remain that give an idea of what it looked like in those churches where ex-voto¬s accumulated. A painted scene on the exterior of one of the wings of an altarpiece in Västerås Cathedral shows a priest holding up a reliquary before an audience of beggars and cripples (cult manifestation # 3535; Bedoire 2019, 143, 147). In the upper right corner of the panel, crutches and was limbs hang suspended from a rope right above what appears to be a saint’s shrine, standing on or behind the altar. It should be kept in mind, though, that the altarpiece was made in Antwerp and that the painting is generic in character, i.e. it is not an historically accurate rendering of the interior of Västerås Cathedral (cf. Liepe 2020, 56, on the apparent lack of a saint’s shrine in Västerås). Somewhat more reliable as a historical source is an engraving from around 1700 of the late medieval so-called Erik altarpiece in Uppsala Cathedral (cult manifestation # 3505; Bengtsson 2010, 57–58). The altarpiece disappeared in the great fire that ravaged the cathedral in 1702, but engravings made of it not long before on the initiative of Johan Peringskiöld, inform us of its appearance. One of the altarpiece’s painted panels depicted two pilgrims kneeling in front of the shrine of St. Erik. Included in the composition were votive offerings: to the right in the picture, a leg and a hand made from wax (or perhaps silver), and the upper part of a suit of armour, can be seen suspended from the vaults or piers in the chancel where the shrine had its place in the late fifteenth century, when the panel that the engraving reproduces was painted.

Votive gifts in wax or silver had monetary value, and were likely often given with the intention that the receiving institution could convert them into material or pecuniary assets Thus, one of the reasons for the complete loss of medieval ex-voto images is probably that the waxen ones were used for candles, whereas the silver ones were perhaps melted down and reused for making other objects, or were simply turned into an economic resource. The material value also attracted thieves. The miracle collection of the local Danish saint Niels of Aarhus tells of how thieves twice tried to steal silver – in one case a pair of silver eyes – from the shrine, but how the relics emitted a fragrance that alerted the clerics so that the thieves could be caught. The Stockholm legal protocols for 1482 recount how a woman confessed to stealing wax from the altar of “Helga Lösen” in the Dominican church. For this, she was first placed on the pillory and then banished from the city (Krötzl 2014, 215).

Another cause for their disappearance is that they were purged as part of the Reformation’s crackdown on the Catholic cult of saints. The saints were not banned in the strict sense; they were, and still are, accepted as pious models to be venerated and remembered as worthy examples of faith, piety, patience and obedience. They may not, however, be worshipped or invoked. The Danish reformer Peter Palladius writes in his Visitatsbog (Visitation book) from just after the mid-16th century, that “billeder som mand haffuer giort søgning til, och hengde voxbørn och krycker for, de schule borttagis och brendis op” (“images that people seek out, and hang wax children and crutches before, should be taken away and burned.”) (Jacobsen (ed.) 1926, 36). In Fana parish in Norway after the Reformation, the priest burned several wagonloads of crutches and staffs that pilgrims had donated to the church’s reputedly miracle-working cross or crucifix that had a reputation for miracle working (Hagen 2021, 386).

At the time of writing (September, 2022), 35 votive offerings in total are registered in the database, the majority of which are silver cereal ears and silver fish. As more miracle collections and other sources are harvested for cult manifestations, the number of entries belonging to this category will grow, and yet another dimension of the material forms that the cult of saints could take will be made visible and accessible for further study. By mean of these objects, another piece is added to the jigsaw puzzle of lived religion as it unfolded in medieval Sweden and Finland.


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What is “lived religion”?


Lena Liepe, Linnaeus University

Our project is called Mapping Lived Religion. The meaning of the “mapping” part of the title should be fairly clear since the entire project is premised on the creation of an interactive map to places connected to saints’ cults in medieval Sweden and Finland. But what about “lived religion”? In the following, I will outline the concept of lived religion, or LR, in brief and give some examples of how it has been applied in previous scholarship on religious experiences historically and today.

The choice of lived religion, as the theoretical platform of the project implies a conception of saints’ cults not merely, or even primarily, as a manifestation of an institutionalized framework for religious observance managed by the Church in compliance with a predetermined set of creeds and rituals. Instead, the focus of the LR approach lies on religion as a practice that unfolds in the everyday life of the individual. Religion is seen as something that people do, not just something they believe in. The interest is directed towards the individual practitioners and the way they “make” religion by embracing various customs and practices and putting them to use according to their own needs and priorities. LR takes little interest in “belief” as an articulated internalisation of tenets of faith according to the teachings of the Church. The religious usages of common people in the Middle Ages are better described as an adherence to local practices, resulting in highly varied strategies to establish contact with the sacred in order to secure the welfare of people, cattle and crops.

In a useful survey of late medieval religious attitudes and the changes they underwent in the course of the Reformation, Meredith McGuire underscores lay religiosity in the late Middle Ages as a matter of practice rather than belief in a confessional sense. The conventional privileging of belief (as opposed to praxis) as the principal form of religiosity conforms to a Western, Protestant, historically situated and fairly narrow conception of religion (McGuire 2008: 39–41; see also Bowman & Valk 2012: 5; Meyer, Houtman 2012: 2). Following an LR perspective of the Middle Ages, religion can instead be seen as something that transpired in the day-to-day life of individuals that choose their own devotional options from a large repertoire of acceptable practices. In this process, the sacred intermingles with what would today be seen as belonging to the profane spheres of life: a distinction that was largely irrelevant then. For instance, the saints’ feasts listed in the calendars of the Church year – an important source material for the Mapping Lived Religion project – served to structure sacred time in a way that flowed into daily life, providing a temporal framework for the routines of mundane activities and creating a communal sense of shared temporal regularity. “Rather than diminishing the quality of experience of the sacred, such diffusedness in everyday life made the sacred more useful.” (McGuire 2008: 31).

The roots of the LR approach can be traced back to the 1920s when sociologist Gabriel Le Bras joined the Annales school and argued that the study of canon law needed to take in la religion vécue as an integral facet of the development of the church law in order to chart why, for whom, and under which conditions the laws were created and how they were received and applied in the society for which they were made (Arnold 2014: 31; Desroche & Le Bras 1970: 16). Despite these early efforts, LR was slow to catch on in theology and church history, whereas it has played an important role as a conceptual tool in contemporary religious education and for empirical research in the branch of theology that deals with the religious life of today’s multicultural, multireligious and secularized society. A central name here is practical theologian Hans-Günter Heimbrock who picks up on the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl in a recognition of the religious experience as something that springs from the life world that exists as a subjectively perceived present for each and every one of us individually (Heimbrock 2005, 2007).

In the conclusion to her chapter on lay religiosity in the late Middle Ages and the early modern period, Meredith McGuire calls for an increased awareness of religion as a historically and culturally changeable phenomenon. Religion is not a given, institutionally defined entity with more or less fixed distinguishing features, but a lived experience that can take multiple forms depending on the individual’s needs. It extends beyond the adherence to formalized creeds and normative patterns of behaviour prescribed by religious institutions (McGuire 2008: 43–44). As the database of the Mapping Lived Religion project grows and more and more cult manifestations appear on the map, McGuire’s wish will be rewarded. A broad spectrum of devotional practices and ways of addressing the saints will emerge on the map and in its connected entries, in a testimony to the multitude of forms that the appeal to the saints could take in the Middle Ages.



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Bowman, Marion, Ülo Valk: “Introduction: Vernacular religion, generic expressions and the dynamics of belief”. Marion Bowman, Ülo Valk (eds.): Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief. Sheffield: Equinox 2012: 1–19.

Desroche, Henri & Gabriel Le Bras: “Religion légale et religion vécue. Entretien avec Gabriel Le Bras”. Archives sociologie des religions 29 (1970): 15–20.

Heimbrock, Hans-Günter: Livsfrågor–religion–livsvärld. Bidrag till en kontextuell religionsdidaktik ur ett tyskt perspektiv. Rune Larsson (övers.). Uppsala–Lomma: RPI Arbetsgemenskapen för religionspedagogik 2005.

—: “Reconstructing lived religion”. Hans-Günter Heimbrock, Christopher P. Scholtz (eds.): Religion: Immediate Experience and the Mediacy of Research. Interdisciplinary Studies in the Objectives, Concepts and Methodology of Empirical Research in Religion. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2007: 133–157.

McGuire, Meredith: Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2008.

Meyer, Birgit, Dick Houtman: “Introduction: Material religion—how things matter”. Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality. Dick Houtman, Birgit Meyer (eds.). New York: Fordham University Press 2012: 1–23.