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El origen italiano de los exvotos

Naples and the origin of the exvotos

A little over a month ago we visited Naples, the largest city in the south of Italy. It was a trip we had planned for years, but for various reasons we were not able to make it until now. And although it was a quick visit, we loved it!

The city stands out for an array of curiosities and charming details. Good Neapolitan food, the omnipresent Vesuvius, a very scenographic character – every corner looks like a scene taken out of a film – and a certain chaos of people, sounds and smells… However, one of the curiosities that most interested us on this trip was to learn more about the origin and history of the Catholic votive offerings.

The so called milagritos - or also exvotos - in Italy
The so called milagritos – or also exvotos – in Italy

But what are Catholic exvotos?

As we had explained before, the Latin expression “ex voto” means “something that comes from a vow or promise”. It is when a faithful person prays to a saint with an intention, and subsequently fulfils the promise of making an offering to the saint after receiving a grace or healing. So an ex-voto is a token of gratitude, but also a testimony to the faith of believers.

With the growing devotional fervour in Europe, this habit of making offerings began to gain momentum from the 14th century onwards. The wealthier classes hired artists to create the pieces, which were of great aesthetic value. With the Spanish conquest of America, the tradition of votive offerings reached Mexico, where it grew even more and became an important part of the national popular culture. That is why many people believe that the origin of the exvotos is Mexican. But in reality it comes precisely from Italy, which was (and still is) an important center for Catholicism in the old continent.

Church of Gesù Nuovo in Naples
Church of Gesù Nuovo in Naples

Visit to the Church of Gesù Nuovo

In search of the trail of exvotos, we could not miss the church of Gesù Nuovo or Trinità Maggiore, one of the most important basilicas in Naples. It is located in a square of the same name and is home to the body of San Giuseppe Moscati, the so-called doctor of the poor. Many miracles are attributed to him. The church also houses a large collection of exvotos in one of the side rooms.

All the walls of this room are covered with small metal medals that thousands of devotees donated as a sign of gratitude for the many graces received. They come in various sizes and shapes, which indicate the type of miracle or healing received by the person who deposited them.

Sacred art workshop in Naples
Sacred art workshop in Naples

Later, wandering through the city to digest a quantity of “sfogliatelle” that we will not reveal, we came across the Neapolitan Sacred Art. It is the workshop of Fabio Paolella, an artist dedicated to making sacred art and traditional votive offerings, with reproductions of sacred icons in Neapolitan style. We couldn’t help but take a piece home with us.

Wall decorated with votive offerings in Italy
Wall decorated with exvotos in Italy

A little later we came across a tattoo studio that had a whole wall decorated with exvotos, forming a fantastic composition.

At the end of the day, we couldn’t help but make one last purchase, this figurine of a soul in purgatory, which will go straight onto our polytheistic religious altar.

Additional types of devotion

In Naple it’s clearly not difficult to find devotional object everywhere. But the exvotos are not the only sacred thing in Naples. Neapolitans are very fervent in many ways, and perhaps even more so when it comes to football, another big local passion.

This second “religion” has its own messiah, the indomitable Diego Maradona. Despite his controversial lifestyle, the Argentinian footballer is truly revered as a god in the city. As our guide told us, Maradona embodies the triumph of the underappreciated south over the bulky, wealthy north of Italy. In the end, the footballer really seems to sum up the essence of Naples, with all its contradictions and glories.

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