Votives / If God didn’t answer their prayers maybe the Devil would
4th – 16th September 2018
ARO Gallery, Darlinghurst, Sydney, Australia
Video of exhibition:
Votives by Ian Kingsford-Smith, engages with the historical role of votives within spiritual practices. The exhibition is comprised of two interrelated sets of works: firstly a range of 50 painted votive objects, secondly a set of 13 wood engraving prints, which engage with a body of historical imagery associated with beliefs surrounding the afterlife.
A votive is anobject displayed or deposited, without the intention of recovery or use, in a scared place for broadly religious purposes. Such items were a feature of ancient societies and were generally made in order to gain favour with supernatural forces. The votives in this exhibition include: human body parts, miniature full human figures, animals, and tableware. These objects have been painted with imagery that includes depictions of people in bucolic settings. The imagery suggests a utopian domain without human conflict, oppressive labour and the negative trace of people on the natural environment. This sanitised representation of the earthly realm relates to the historical tradition of imagining the afterlife as an idealised version of mortal life.
In contrast to the painted imagery on the votives the wood engravings represent the violence and uncertainty of mortal life. Images of death and turmoil are combined with nature motifs to suggest the intersection of earthly and sacred realms within the medieval imagination. Natural motifs mirror the spiritual and psychological states of people locked within existential trauma: wind swept trees image the interior worlds of fleeing people, leafless trees frame fleshless skeletons, while anguished faces are underscored by turbulent waters.
In preparation for this exhibition Kingsford-Smith researched the use of votives within medieval European and ancient Egyptian cultures. The selection of votive objects in this exhibition was informed by these two traditions. The juxtaposition of references to these seemingly unrelated cultures was made to assert the central role of votives within cultures dominated by cosmological world-views.
In ancient Egypt mummified animals were used as sacred offerings. The votive provided a medium through which a person’s prayer could pass to the Gods. Various animals were mummified including: bulls, dogs, cats, birds, ibis, falcon, cows, rats, crocodiles, shrew. There would be a series of temples that pilgrims would come to buy a mummified animal and bury it. There are specific catacombs for dogs, cats, birds, etc. The inclusion of animal votives in the exhibition makes reference to ancient Egyptian beliefs and traditions.
Reference to medieval European source material is more obvious in the exhibition and can be seen not only in the selection of types of votives but also in the painted and printed imagery. Votive objects were a ubiquitous part of medieval pilgrimage. As part of the ‘economy of salvation,’ votives represented a gift-exchange with the sacred. The essence of the vow is a transaction, “Help me and I will do this for you.” Almost always the vow was made to a specific saint and a specific place where their relics resided, and recorded medieval miracles made it clear that the saint’s help was contingent on a vow.
Votives were also used to aid medical problems during the medieval period. Votives sometimes represented the body part of the pilgrim that they wished to cure. The body fragments in Kingsford-Smith’s exhibition signal this tradition. By painting the body fragments with imagery associated with a bucolic fantasy Kingsford-Smith creates an object, which represents human mortality in two overlapping ways. The body fragment votive, as an object, signifies the failing mortal body in need of repair. The painted representation, on the votive, depicts the realm of the dead as an idealised earthly realm. This combination of object and image provides a representation of human mortality. The other overlapping reading that can be made of the painted body fragment votive is that it provides a representation of hope both of a cure for a particular illness, and hope for the possibility of transcending both the mortal body and the earthly realm.
Kingsford-Smith’s exhibition provides a means to reflect upon the way that votives were used as a medium to link earthly and spiritual realms. His imagery communicates how the realm of the dead and the realm of the living were threaded together in diverse ways. The significance of votives lingers in contemporary religious practices such as the lighting of candles within Catholic churches. This exhibition invites viewers to reflect on their relationship to their mortality, and the way that their understanding intersects with the wider historical understanding associated with representations of an afterlife.