Up Front and Personal

Offering Not a Wish or Vow, But a God-Directed Prayer

by Msgr. Steven Ferrari

Legs, arms, eyes, hearts, heads, genitalia, breasts and lungs were among the body parts. Made of wax, wood, silver, clay, cloth, or painted on canvas, the ex-votos covered the walls and display cabinets on three floors of the Bard Graduate Center Gallery on West 86th Street, off Central Park West. The exhibit, recently opened, is titled “Agents of Faith: Votive Objects in Time and Place.”

The body parts were being prayed for – or being thanked-to-God for – healing. A second century B.C. Etruscan terracota votive bust and torso of a young man showed a cutaway section of his internal organs, albeit on a smaller scale. A Mexican oil painting from the late 18th century depicts an initially successful breast cancer operation.

Modern-Day Votives

Objects left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., illustrate the modern-day votives in response to loss and mass tragedy.

On a 13th century tile from Iran, I found this quote from Sura 1: 6-7 of the Quran: “In the name of God, the Clement (my Dad’s name again!), the Merciful…”

The press release for the exhibition states: “Linking the human and spiritual realms … almost anything can be transformed into a votive once it is charged with sentiment and meaning through a spiritual act such as prayer or meditation. Through the process, the votive becomes activated as the material representative, or agent, of the individual’s most private wish or vow.”

Walking through the galleries, I couldn’t help but think of all the votive candles that are lit every day in countless churches throughout the world. So many silent, as well as voiced, prayers that are offered up with those lighted candles.

In one of the galleries, I stood before the live “Wish Tree.” I thought how I had not seen any images or ex-votos that depicted my own diseased body parts.  For I had been diagnosed in August with cancer in the lymph nodes. Chemotherapy has already begun to treat and ‘cure’ me.

I took one of the paper tags offered in a basket near the Wish Tree. I wrote a prayer for healing; not a ‘wish’ or a ‘vow,’ but a God-directed prayer. Like others before me, I attached the tag to a branch of the tree, as instructed, confident that God’s will may be done.

For centuries, numberless fears, hopes and anxieties about the unknown have been lifted up to God. I have added my own to the multitudes before me.


Editor’s note: “Agents of Faith: Votive Objects in Time and Place” is the first large-scale exhibition to provide a broad perspective on the practice and history of votive giving. More than 250 works will be on view through Jan. 6, 2019.


Msgr. Ferrari is the pastor of St. Teresa’s parish, Woodside.

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