Some Catholic ex votos take the form of a published notice of thanks to a Patron Saint for help in a specific situation. The most common of these are newspaper calssified ads that read, "Thank you, St. Jude."
Other ex-votos are images of what is to be or has been helped. Some may be in the form of a body part to be healed or enhanced (such as the pair of eyes, leg, and arm), while others are made in the form of domestic animals to be cured or purchased (such as this cow). A third group represents important possessions to be protected, such as a car or a crop of wheat with a sickle. A fourth type straddles the line between luck, protection, and religion and may assume the form of a praying person giving thanks, while a fifth variation utilizes the iconography of actual deities, such as the flaming heart of Jesus or a cross of crucifixion with a heart st the center. .
Ex-votos and milagros are made of many materials, including wax, wood, glass, pottery, plaster, and cast or stamped metal. In Bolivia and Peru, those made of sugar are called mysteriosos ("mysterious things") and are used to decorate altars and statues of Ekkeko, the Andean god of abundance.
Prayers may be written on milagros. (e.g. "Health") and they may bear the name of the being on whose behalf the prayer is being made or the name of the entity whose help is sought, but these touches are not necessary. As magical artifacts, they are activated by placing them in a sanctuary or shrine, often pinned to the clothing of a statue of the entity whose aid the donor wishes to invoke. In ancient Greece, ex votos for healing were taken to a temple of Asclepius, the healing god; modern Catholics place theirs in a church that contains a shrine to the patron saint of the cause for whom the prayer is offered; Hindus often dedicate certain noble old trees to the hanging of ex votos; in Peru, the Quechua Indians place mysteriosos on Ekkeko or bury their munachi figures, munaiwarmi stones and illas, canopas, and other votary offerings in Pachamama, the scared Mother Earth.
Once at the shrine or sacred place, a prayer is made to the entity whose aid one seeks. In some cultures candles and incense may be lit. A vow is then spoken which will be carried out if the prayer is granted and the image is offered to the spirit of the shrine as a token of the vow (hence the name "ex voto") and hung up there for all to see. Typical vows include promises to donate a certain amount of money to the upkeep of the shrine, or to give a certain amount of money to the poor, or even to perform penance, if one feels responsible for the problem.
In some cultures if the prayer is granted, an addition may be made to the ex voto. For instance at a church in Bad Tolz, Germany, i once saw a framed ex voto from the early 1800s reverse-painted on glass which depicted a man falling from a roof and the words (in German) "St. Jude, help me!" This had been placed there by the family of a roofer who was seriously injured in an accident. Hanging from the painting's frame by two little chains was a smaller framed painting of a floral decoration and the words "He helped!"
The stamped metal milagros shown at left and right abve are from Peru. The small stamped milagros in the center image are from Mexico.
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