Votive Objects & Material Religion

votive

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Went to see “Agents of Faith: Votive Objects in Time and Place” at Bard Graduate Center Gallery. I understood that I was off to look at objects, but what are votive objects? Something loosely to do with “religion.” What I did not expect was the immense feelings of sickness, pain, and suffering carried by these objects. Next to the deluxe pictures and paintings or sculptural figures and design ornaments are these more common, everyday objects, completely humble. One offers them because one is suffering something or has suffered something, some physical malady or material misfortune.

The ex-voto represent no god or saint and no gods. They stand in for the things that matter at the most visceral level of human life, the life that one wants to heal or to remember. You bring a hand, or a foot, or a breast, or uterus because you are suffering a malady to that part and you want relief, or because you were saved from such a malady and you want to express relief and thanks. Or an image of livestock because that’s the object about which you are worrying. The sculpted figures or pictures are left on site.

On view is a rich melange of human and animal figures, carved, and molded, made of wood, silver, wax, and pigment.

In his essay in the catalog by the same name, Jaś Elsner argues that we need to bracket interpretive frames that view these things in terms of gift exchange (pp.5-6). Instead, we are encouraged to look at the object itself. Why these kinds of physical objects? Why the use of these particular materials? Perhaps because like the bodies they represent and the uncertainty and suffering they undergo, they are subject to transformation.

On a side note, I’m going to try showing students these digital photos instead of the clean bright photographic images in the catalog. The darkness of the gallery space and the mass of objects all brought together in such close proximity lends itself to a more distinct and telling mood that underscores the character of these objects. The objects on view in the exhibition remind me of Nietzsche’s criticism that religion is a sick house, that it caters to the mortal and to the morbid, to the human in its most element physical and material circumstantial need. How could it not be.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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