Human beings have been making votive offerings of things to divine powers since ancient times, our first speaker, Dr Mary Laven (History Faculty, Cambridge), explained. Museum collections today testify to the many different forms these ex-votos have taken, and the range of materials from which they have been made, including bronze, terracotta, silver, and wax. In her latest research, Laven is concerned with the material culture of devotion in Renaissance Italy, in which the ex-voto plays a significant role. Vittore Carpaccio’s painting The Vision of Prior Ottobon in San’Antonio di Castello (c. 1515) illustrates some of the popular kinds of ex-voto objects in this period: most immediately evident are the models of ships, presumably given by sailors who were saved at sea, but also hanging from the church rafters are many wax candles. While explicitly representational models in wax or silver (often of body parts, for example, a tradition which continues in Italy and elsewhere today) were popular offerings, Laven is currently focusing on another category of devotional objects, painted wooden tablets, which like other ex-votos were offered in a contractual way to a particular saint, either in hope of or gratitude for their heavenly intervention. These tablets typically depict the scene of the miracle – Laven’s examples included the miraculous survival of a child who fell from a window, the escape from death of a woman who fell into a wine barrel, and many sickbed images of those who recovered from illness through the assistance of a saint. In many of these scenes, the saint or saints in question are shown watching over the events, and praying on behalf of their human intercessors. In comparison with other kinds of ex-votos, these tablets raise different kinds of question. They are flat rather than three-dimensional, and are not made of special or expensive materials. They appear to offer a more narratological response to miracles: more so than a singular wax hand or foot, for example, they visually articulate a specific context for moments of divine intervention.
Dr Maia Nuku (Artefacts of Encounter Project, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge) took us on a voyage to the other side of the globe, to the Polynesia of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. When Protestant missionaries from Europe first arrived there in this period, they were surprised and shocked to discover that the indigenous gods were not anthropomorphic in form, but were apparently unformed (yet actually, as Nuku showed us, very complex) assemblages of rare, valuable natural materials, such as coconut fibres, bone, hair, and brightly coloured feathers. While these artefacts (of which Nuku showed us some brilliantly detailed photographs) rather confounded the early modern Protestant mindset, which in its suspicion of Catholicism was fully prepared for combatting dangerous idolatry, they similarly speak of the strikingly contractual relationships that existed between the human and divine realms, circumscribed by complex rituals often involving ritual specialists, known as ta’unga in Tahiti. These artefacts were often made at night, literally under the cover of darkness, and the process of assembling these materials, each of which was of symbolic importance, was as important as the object itself.