Devotional art in the spotlight at Cabrini College exhibit

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Personal stories of vow fulfillment and divine intercession are depicted through metal, silver, and paint at Graces Received: Painted and Metal Ex-Votos from Italy at Cabrini College. The ex-votos, voluntary offerings to a saint or divinity crafted in gratitude for a favor, blessing, or healing received, date from the early 1800s to 1959 and are from the collection of Leonard Norman Primiano, Ph.D., chair and professor of religious studies.

“People can expect to see examples of Roman Catholic devotional art, more than 30 pieces all together with labels explaining each piece to the viewer,” he said.

The pieces tell stories about the religious beliefs and practices of ordinary Catholics who had an injury, an accident, or a disease.

The Virgin Mary and Child Jesus with Saints, 1882, oil on wood, Photo courtesy of Cabrini College

The Virgin Mary and Child Jesus with Saints, 1882, oil on wood,
Photo courtesy of Cabrini College

“They prayed and made a vow to Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or a saint that if they received the favor or blessing or healing asked that they would publically proclaim that the blessing had been received by having an artist create a painting of the scene of the illness or accident and the presence of God which spared the person from death or harm,” he said. “Sometimes they would have an arm or a foot reproduced in silver to proclaim the healing in that form. These are objects which tell a very personal spiritual story. They are art, but they are also testimonies of belief and miracles performed.”

The Latin term ex-voto, short for ex voto suscepto, means “from the vow made.” Items in the collection also include metal objects that form hearts representing the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as well as painted tablets that capture the moment intercession was requested.

Primiano believes showing these art pieces is important.

“They are material evidence of the beliefs of ordinary people, very important evidence about the way people are actually religious in their everyday lives,” he said. “They are also fascinating folk art including various styles and uses of color.”

They also show a custom that isn’t popular or well-known with Americans.

“This custom doesn’t really exist among Catholics in the United States, so they are examples of art and traditional behavior that one does not see here, even if you are a practicing Catholic,” he said. “It’s European people’s religious art.”

Primiano has spent his scholarly life studying where religion and art intersect and how people are artistic in their everyday religious lives, he said.

“I’m a folklorist, and such research is what we do when we concentrate on religious traditions,” he said. “I think it’s exciting to show these examples of European – specifically Italian, Roman Catholic – art here in America for the public to learn about such objects and for our aesthetic appreciation. It’s exciting to highlight and celebrate the culture of ordinary religious people in this way.”

Primiano said he’s delighted to allow the public to view these objects from his personal collection. He thinks they’re priceless and hopes others will appreciate them as well.

“If only these paintings and metal objects could talk, what stories they would tell,” he said. “But one can at least imagine the intensity of these stories by viewing these metal expressions of thanks for graces received.”


Graces Received: Painted and Metal Ex-Votos from Italy

Through October.

Cabrini College, Grace and Joseph Gorevin Fine Arts Gallery. 610 King of Prussia Road, Radnor.

Admission is free.

For information, call (610) 902-8100 or  check or www.cabrini.edu

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