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, , 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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Ex-voto images: lived religion in visual form14:10 by Lena Liepe
Lena Liepe, Linnaeus University