18 January 2012
Infinitas Gracias: Mexican miracle paintings is on show at the Wellcome Collection, London until 26 February 2012. Obi Chiejina explores the mystery behind this exhibition of votive paintings.
For most people Christmas and the New Year period involves juggling work commitments with preparation for special family gatherings, religious celebrations and the observation of pagan traditions. For Christians, pagans and the secular alike the festivities provides an annual opportunity to imbue a heightened sense of occasion into our everyday activities.
We can enjoy eating expensive cuts of meat, poultry and game, the sweetness of humble winter root vegetables and enjoying the occasional tipple of ordinary wine spiced with heady aromas of cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg.
The themes of the ordinary and the sublime, forms the basis of ‘Infinitas Gracias: Mexican Miracle Paintings’ - a temporary exhibition displaying approximately hundred small paintings commissioned by Mexicans between the eighteenth century and the present day. All of the paintings are artistic, religious and spiritual expressions of thanks for the intervention of Catholic saints in illnesses, death, marriage, childbirth, domestic/industrial accidents.
According to the accompanying promotional material the combination of the depiction of ordinary men, women and children and the heavenly saints illustrate ‘both the ordinary and extraordinary characteristics of the paintings. Furthermore the ‘ordinary’ and mundane details of everyday life provide a rich source of material for evoking the religious and spiritual beliefs evident in the paintings otherwise known as votives, or ex-votos.
Take for example the arrangement and materials used in the ‘paintings’ displayed in ‘Infinitas Gracias: Mexican Miracle Paintings.’ In Western art history the traditional features of a painting include a single image, no narrative and the use of expensive materials.
However this traditional interpretation of a ‘painting’ is an inaccurate description of the votives on display. They all consist of two elements – an illustration and a piece of narrative. Pencils, crayons, magazine cuttings and even photographs are media used in the pictorial section of the votive whilst the narrative is written in ink, crayon and pencil. In short, ordinary Mexicans used and continue to source, readily available materials and objects to make and produce these exquisite pieces of art.
To the casual observer the subject matter of the votives appears to be equally humdrum. Not surprisingly serious illnesses both short and long term in adults and children are frequently depicted. Deliverance from a difficult childbirth or sickness during pregnancy is a recurring subject for both the aristocratic and industrial classes.
Disabling ailments, pregnancy and the birth of children are symbolized by an individual lying in bed with the head visible and the rest of the body covered by unadorned blankets and sheets. The bedroom lacks furniture or personal effects. The overall simplicity of these votives heightens the sense of poignancy and implores the saint to intervene swiftly.
Even the saints are given a ‘common’ makeover. The saints (female we well as male) are positioned in the top left hand corner or centre of the votive with the palms of their hands turned towards the human subject and onlooker in supplication or prayer. Both the position of the saint and body language provide a dramatic distance between god and man thereby evoking humility and awe. However on closer inspection the male saints appear to have down-to-earth human features - notably brown eyes, a beard and wearing a plain brown gown with sandals.
So as you eat (or drink) the remnants of Christmas/New Year celebrations ask yourself the question posed by ‘Infinitas Gracias.’ Have you been celebrating the extraordinary in the ordinary? Or is it the ordinary in the extraordinary? Like the votives from the exhibition the answer remains a mystery.