Votive Offerings:

A Closer Look at Devotion and Gratitude

I have been creating ceramic cast elbows for my arts practice for a number of years without knowing what votive offerings were. It wasn’t until I started to delve deeper into the culture and history of Rome that I discovered the fascinating world of votive offerings.

A museum collection of anatomical votive offerings in the shapes of body parts.
Image Source Link: A blog I’ve been reading that has some excellent research into votive offerings from various eras.

Across cultures and throughout history, humans have sought ways to express their devotion and gratitude to the divine. One such way is through the offering of votive objects or gifts, which have played a significant role in many religious and spiritual traditions. Votive offerings can take many forms, depending on the culture and religious context. They can range from simple offerings like candles or incense to more elaborate ones like jewelry or statues.

In ancient Greece, votive offerings were commonly made at temples and sanctuaries. These offerings included statuettes, painted plaques, and ex-votos (objects left at a shrine in fulfillment of a vow). In Rome, votive offerings were made at public shrines and were often dedicated to the gods of health and healing. In Egypt, votive offerings were left at temples to honor the gods and goddesses and to seek their protection and favor.

As an artist, I was particularly fascinated by the variety of materials used in creating these offerings. In ancient Greece, small sculptures of body parts such as hands, feet, and eyes were commonly offered to the gods as a way of thanking them for healing or protecting the corresponding body part. These sculptures were often made of terracotta or bronze and could be found in temples and shrines throughout the ancient world.

Similarly, in medieval Europe, it was common for people to offer small sculptures of body parts made of wax or wood to local saints or relics. These sculptures were often created to represent a specific ailment or injury that had been healed, such as a leg or arm that had been broken and then restored to health. In some cultures, such as in parts of Africa and Asia, sculptures of body parts are still used as votive offerings today. For example, in some Buddhist traditions, small sculptures of feet or hands are offered at temples as a way of expressing gratitude for healing or protection.

Sam Matthewman, Man-akin, 2021 (Ceramic Slip Cast Arms & Cotton Cord) – Photo by Simon McClure

The act of making a votive offering can be seen as a form of communication between the worshipper and the divine. The offering is a tangible expression of the worshipper’s love, devotion, and gratitude. In many cases, votive offerings are made in exchange for a specific favor or blessing from the deity or saint. For example, a person might offer a votive offering to ask for healing or protection or to give thanks for a successful outcome.

While I can appreciate the sentiment behind votive offerings, as an agnostic artist, I can’t help but find the ancient cast votive offerings a superfluous expenditure. Maybe casting votive offerings of elbows was my past life’s profession, who knows?

However, I do find it fascinating how votive offerings have served as a form of community building and collective expression of faith. It’s incredible how a simple act of making an offering can bring people together and strengthen their bond with each other and the divine.

As an artist, I have found the world of votive offerings to be an endless source of inspiration. The intricate details and symbolism behind each offering are truly remarkable and can provide inspiration for artistic endeavors. While I may not personally participate in the act of making votive offerings, I can still appreciate the cultural significance and beauty behind them.

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