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Ex Votos in Italian-American Devotions

The Church of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel on 115th street, East Harlem, the first Italian Parish in the USA. The ‘cult’ raised controversy among the US Catholic clergy but was legitimized by Pope Leo XIII. The statue was ‘crowned’ in 1904. Click for credits

Italian version

New York City, July 17 1900.

The New York Times wrote on that day:

“Little Italy […] was out in gala attire yesterday, which was the day of the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. A crowd of Italians estimated variously at from 40,000 to 75,000 besieged the shrine in the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, at 115th street and Avenue A, from 4 o’clock in the morning until late at night, bringing with them as offerings candles of all sizes, money, jewellery, wax figures, and in one case a pair of spectacles.”

Our Lady of Mt. Carmel exits the church during the 2004 celebration of the 100th anniversary of the statue’s coronation. Click for credits

We exchanged ideas in this discussion at the MoR’s about the significance of Italian religious feasts.

Now I’d like to draw attention on those wax figures. What are they?

They are mostly anatomical ex votos, i.e. “models of the limbs or organs they prayed the Madonna would heal” – another NYT article reports.

Ex votos. Anthropology and Ethnography Museum, Cagliari, Italy. Click for credits

As Robert Anthony Orsi observes (at page 3 of his 1985 book “The Madonna of 115th streetFaith and community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950”) :

“Vendors of religious articles set up booths along the sidewalks, competing for business with the thriving local trade in religious goods. The booths were filled with wax replicas of internal human organs and with models of human limbs and heads. Someone who has been healed – or hoped to be healed – by the Madonna of the headaches or arthritis would carry wax models of the afflicted limbs or head, painted to make them look realistic, in the big procession. The devout could also buy little wax statues of infants. Charms to ward off the evil eye, such as little horns to wear around the neck and little red hunchbacks, were sold alongside the holy cards, statues of Jesus, Mary and the saints, and the wax body parts.”

Ancient Rome, 342 BC.

Marcia is happy. Her 14-year-old son has recovered from a terrible cart accident. His fractured legs have healed and he can walk again. The lectica carrying her is now set down. She gets out of it and enters a shop not far from the temple of Aesculapius, god of medicine and healing. She buys two terra-cotta legs that she will soon take to the temple of the god on the Tiber island, as a sacred gift expressing her gratitude.

Anatomical ex votos from ancient Greece

Marcia is fictional but a real ancient Roman shop going back more than a couple of thousand years earlier perhaps (the period of the Roman Republic) was discovered in the spring of 1885 in the foundations of the left embankment of the Tiber.

It contained – archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani wrote a few years later – “a large number of anatomical specimens in painted terra-cotta, beautifully modelled from nature, and representing heads, ears, eyes, breasts, arms, hands, knees, legs, feet, ex-votos offered by happy mothers etc.” to the Greco-Roman deities.

In fact, Lanciani adds, “it seems that at the entrance of the Fabrician bridge (ponte Quattro Capi, see image below), leading from the Campus Martius to the island [where the temple of the god was located, MoR], there were shops for the sale of ex‑votos of every description …”

Pons Fabricius, called Quattro Capi, the most ancient bridge in Rome. It leads to the Tiber Island where the temple of Aesculapius was located. Click for credits

Anatomical ex votos as offerings to a deity out of gratitude or in hope for healing were common in many ancient peoples. They existed in Mesopotamia, Minoan Crete, ancient Egypt etc. but the most numerous finds were unearthed in Greece and especially in central Italy where most of them date back from the 4th to the 1st century BC.

We also found anatomical ex votos in provinces of the Roman empire. In Gallia now France, for example, they were present in sanctuaries of Dea Sequana, the Celtic goddess of the river Seine.

Robert A. Orsi in his valuable work on NYC  Madonna of Mount Carmel does not make use of the term ‘pagan’ as for the Italian-Americans of the period 1880-1950 [I wonder why. I don’t think there is anything shameful about the traces of ancient customs. Quite the contrary]

Paganism is though mentioned when he describes the reaction of the non Italian Catholics to the Italian religiosity. Italians were accused of religious superficiality and of weird, pagan practices.

“In a bitter attack published in The Catholic world in 1888 – Orsi refers at p. 55 -, the Reverend Bernard Lynch excoriated “the peculiar kind of spiritual condition” of the Italian immigrants, fed on pilgrimages, shrines, holy cards, and ‘devotions’ “but lacking any understanding of ‘the great truth of religion’.”

On the following page Orsi mentions “an Italian priest who spent his own life in East Harlem and at Mount Carmel” and who told the author that “he always knew the Irish Clergy were against the Mount Carmel devotions, viewing them as pagan superstitions: “They thought we were Africans, that there was something weird. They didn’t accept it at all …We were always looked upon as though we were doing something wrong…”.

Related posts:

“Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial”
Ancient (Roman) Polytheism and the Veneration of Saints (1)

Ancient (Roman) Polytheism and the Veneration of Saints (2)

Survivals of the Roman Goddess Fortuna

Survivals of Roman Religion
From the Goddess of the Fever to Our Lady of the Fever

Read also:

The Mafia and the Italian Mind (1)
The Mafia and the Italian Mind (2)

See also the survival, in the Italian South, of the Greek notion of the ‘envious’ gods:

Gods are Watching with an Envious Eye

About Man of Roma

I am a man from Rome, Italy. I’m 60 and a Roman since many generations. In my blog,, I’m writing down my meditations. The idea behind it all is that something 'ancient' is still alive in the true Romans of today, of which few are left.

16 responses »

  1. Ex-votos are not particular to Italians. For instance at St-Joseph’s Oratory, on Mountroyal in Montreal, thousands of crutches, canes, corsets and other prosthesis are hung in gratitude for cures attributed to St-Joseph or to Brother André. Lots of them are from thankful U.S. pilgrims.
    Pagan or not they are expressions of popular faith in the deity.

    • Well, I didn’t mean they are particular to Italians only. Just here in Europe many churches in various countries show all kinds of ex votos.

      The reaction of the US Catholic clergy (mentioned in my post) didn’t refer to the ex votos but to the entire South Italian religious ways, originally very different from the Polish, the German or the Irish ways: the drinking of wine and beer during the devotions, the walking barefoot to the shrine from Brooklyn out of rispetto and penance, which at times implied people crawling on hands and knees toward the altar, ‘dragging the tongue along the pavement as they went’ – as Orsi refers at page 11.

      • I do agree about the strangeness of some Italian rituals. Watching some religious processions, St-Anthony’s for instance, was as entertaining as watching a parade, with the bands, the statue adorned with long wire to which the pious strung dollar bills of various denominations, before we had 1 and 2 dollar coins of course.

        • This ‘strangeness’ – according to Orsi – brought to a clash between pope Leo XIII and the American Catholic hierarchy, at that time mainly in Irish hands. The pope backed the Italians in a subtle way (he didn’t want to be accused of favouring paganism) and Mount Carmel in East Harlem became an officially recognized sanctuary.

          The clash between Rome and the American catholic clergy is instructive from the viewpoint of this blog. I might mention it in a future post.

          A much minor (and funny) clash with Leo is *narrated* in Calcagni’s memoirs, when my grandma’s bro and sis were caught by Leo in his private garden.

  2. welcome back!

    one month between commenting and posting. you’ve been missed.

    will read this and comment soon.

    • Hi Dafna, thank you! I’ve missed you all too. I am here, and looking forward to your comment, even though the ex voto theme may be outlandish (and boring) to a Jew. In my blog, as you know, I’m trying to explore a bit how ancient and modern mix. Cannot avoid the stuffy stuff lol.

      • not at all boring MOR. i saw this exhibit when it was in ohio:
        Treasures of Heaven

        it was… well all the things you say, interesting, strange, pagan, fantastical, enlightening. (but not worth the entrance fee)

        i suppose can all become a bit in awe of “stupidstision” © – i have a crystal rosary with the stamp “rome” on the christ that i find mystic.

        you photographs are beautiful from an artistic point. it seems as if many major religions are leaning to ward….what’s the word?

        the turkish “evil-eye” is out in full force and hassidic male jews now dress from head to toe is tall wool hats and boots in 90 degree weather. i will email you the photo, it’s astonishing.

        i was required (as a woman) to walk backwards form the kotel, lest i show disrespect by turning my back on it!

  3. I like your blog for many reasons. Here’s one: You often make me think of some peculiarities of my home town in Pennsylvania. A town dominated by Catholics, as I think I’ve mentioned here before.

    I’ve probably also already mentioned that our rural town of 16,000 inhabitants had three Catholic churches and, of course, three Catholic cemeteries. Three separate institutions because (god help us!) the Polish Catholics wanted nothing to do with the German Catholics, and neither of them wanted anything to do with the Italian Catholics. Separate houses of worship and (certainly!) separate resting places. Let’s not let our bones mingle. Perhaps, I now realize, one of the reasons is the one you describe in this post.

    When I was growing up, I could hardly see what the fuss was about. Thirty years later, I start to get a clue.

  4. @ Dafna & Jenny

    [I have already saluted Dafna, so, Jenny, let me say I’m happy you are back!]

    No need to remind, Dafna, that superstition is usually an irrational or supernatural belief that ‘other’ cultures believe in and we don’t. Of course everyone’s culture has its own supernatural beliefs (elements of ‘our’ religion), but they are our own, so we don’t consider them strange.

    To this [Italians being considered ‘superstitious’ by the Polish etc.], Jenny, we have to add that that Mediterranean people (there including the Jews), on one hand, and central and North European people, on the other hand, are profoundly different (climate, distance from that amazing cultural crossroads, the Mediterranean etc.): the latter got civilized (ie developed a more complex culture) much later, which mostly occurred together with Christianization (which made them more convinced Christians).

    I’ll just cite the case of the Polish. Pagan & primitive tribes, they accepted Western civilization and Christianity in the 10th century AD ‘only’.

    Differently, the South Italians had been pagan too, ok, but highly civilized since at least the 8th century BC (in the east Mediterranean and in Egypt, civilizations, ie complex cultures, were even more ancient). Which is 1700 years earlier, more or less. So when Christianity arrived to them (3rd, 4th cent AD), they having already been Pagan Greeks & Roman for 1000 years, paganism could not be totally erased in them, hence their weird devotions.

    Which made the Italians landed in America (1880?) appear to other Catholics as coming from another planet.

    By the way, Jews and Italians understood each other much better. Not because of paganism, of course, but because of the common Mediterranean roots, I think. And in fact they collaborated in many fields, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin being a symbol to me of it (because I am old) that I remember with affection.

  5. MoR,

    your knowledge and love of history and civilizations is admirable.

    but when you go in depth like this, i am as lost as you might be when i speak math.

    when you paint with broad strokes i’m right beside you, smiling.

    • Don’t get carried away Dafna. And I just wanted to say that Italians are more pagan because their pre-Christian roots are deeper. I envy your (and Richard’s) mathematical knowledge very much.

  6. Wonderful post! I’m the co-curator and co-editor of the exhibition and catalogue entitled “Graces Received: Painted and Metal Ex-votos from Italy.” The exhibit opened on September 16, 2011 and will remain up until May 25, 2012 at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute’s midtown Manhattan gallery. The catalogue’s three articles address the history of ex-votos and their place within Catholic thought, their creation and use by Italian Americans, and finally, the ex-votos’ social life beyond their original religious context, in particular, as collectibles and inspiration for studio-trained artists.

    here are some websites:!/groups/147378507621/

    • Hi Joseph,

      Thanks for visiting! By following your links and exploring the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute web site I’ll say you people did a wonderful job. I loved the Italian-American magazine show, Italics, for example.

      At the foot of my post you find a list of related posts that might interest you. They regard the Greco-Roman heritage still present in Italians.

      Italian north Americans are interesting for us here in Italy not only for sentimental reasons: they are like a ‘bridge’ for European Italians to better understand the New World; they additionally seem to retain cultural traits that have often disappeared here in the Penisola.

      Ciao e buon lavoro!



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