William H. Helfand collection of ex-votos and devotional paintings on medical subjects
Held at: University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts [Contact Us]3420 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6206
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
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Dr. William H. Helfand has degrees in Chemical Engineering (University of Pennsylvania, 1948) and Pharmacy (Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science, 1952), as well as honorary degrees of Doctor of Sciences (Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science, 1976), and Doctor of Humane Letters (Albany College of Pharmacy, Union University, 1981). For more than three decades he worked as an executive manager for the multinational pharmaceutical company Merck & Co., until he retired in 1987. A historian of pharmacy and medicine, he is the author of many publications on these subjects, including the books Medicine & Pharmacy in American Political Prints (1978), Pharmacy: An Illustrated History (1990, with David L. Cowen), and several articles and catalogues of exhibitions on pharmacy and medicine prints, posters and ephemera. Helfand is himself a collector of medicine and pharmacy-related material, and exhibitions of his posters, illustrations, and prints have been hosted at the Philadelphia Museum of Arts, the New York State Museum, and the National Library of Medicine, among other venues. Helfand has donated his collections to research institutions such as the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscripts at Duke University (William H. Helfand Collection of Medical Prints and Posters, 1695-1991; Helfand Collection of Medical and Pharmaceutical Advertising, 1978-2000), and the Grolier Club (William H. Helfand Bookplate Collection, 1776-1993).
A gift of Dr. William H. Helfand, this collection of ex-votos and devotional paintings on medical subjects offers insight into Mexican religious folk practices, especially during the 20th century. Ex-votos are votive paintings usually hung in churches and religious venues as a sign of gratitude for received blessings or healings. Public offerings of symbolic objects in response to the benevolence of the divinity are common in Europe and their origins may be traced back to the ancient Greeks. In Mexico, votive customs had existed even before the arrival of the Spanish, but a figurative tradition emerged only in the 16th century, with the dissemination of Marian cults promoted by European evangelists. Until the end of the 18th century, the offering of votive paintings was usually practiced by wealthier worshippers. However, after Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the tradition was gradually appropriated by the lower classes. With this social shift came a corresponding change in the ex-votos themselves. In the 19th century, tin replaced the expensive canvas that had previously been used, and local, unschooled painters began to specialize in this kind of production, gradually developing personal styles. Until recently, however, the makers of ex-votos have remained largely anonymous, as if to privilege the miraculous event being presented over artistic individuality.
From a spatial perspective, ex-votos are normally organized in three horizontal bands. The spiritual figure being invoked is found in the upper part of the painting, while a description of the miracle performed is provided at the bottom. The miracle itself, or, more frequently, the difficult situation in which the worshippers found themselves before the divine intervention, occupies the central part of the ex-voto. While the holy figures on the top could be copied from traditional sources, the receivers of the blessing are usually portrayed in a simple manner, with scarce attention to physical likeness, and are often organized in hierarchical order, in order to be easily recognized by the viewer – who in turn was very likely to be another worshipper, given the location in which ex-votos were displayed. Health-related miracles are among the most common found in Mexican ex-votos, together with miracles associated with surviving car accidents, earthquakes, animal attacks, and other violent events.
Like the contemporary production of retablos – religious paintings on tinplate, usually depicting Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or other saints – the production of ex-votos also declined in the 20th century, although to a lesser extent, the practice still survives today. In the same decades, Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Gabriel Fernández Ledesma, and Roberto Montenegro came to see ex-votos as a pure form of art, independent from academic influences, and in some cases they even employed them as a source of inspiration for their own works. Kahlo and Rivera were also among the first collectors of ex-votos. Today, several private collectors and museums include these votive paintings in their collections and exhibitions, both in Mexico and abroad.
The William H. Helfand collection of ex-votos and devotional paintings on medical subjects includes six different series, each dedicated to a specific religious figure or to a group of saints: Jesus Christ and the Trinitarian person, the Virgin Mary, Saint Anthony of Padua, Saint James the Moor-slayer, Saint Paschal Baylon, and other saints (Saint Barbara, Saint Judas Thaddeus, Saint Nicholas, Saint Cosmas, Saint Roch). The collection consists exclusively of Mexican ex-votos painted on tin or other metal sheets, although a portrait of Saint Roch on wood, possibly from Colombia, is also included (series VI). In the finding aid, the original Spanish definition of the venerated figure has been retained for every item in the collection, in order to allow for the identification of specific cults and customs. Since most of the ex-votos include the date and location in which they were painted, the relationship between the religious figures and the illnesses being cured may be enriched by possible hypotheses on the geographical areas and the chronological periods in which specific cults were diffused.
Series I consists of 16 ex-votos relating to Jesus Christ and the Trinitarian person, and dated from 1878 to 2002. Among them are found votive paintings dedicated to the Holy Ghost (Espiritu Santo), the Holy Infant of Atocha (Santo Niño de Atocha), and other variations of the cult surrounding the figure of Christ, such as Padre Jesus, Señor de Chalma and Señor de los Rayos. The symptoms, illnesses and injuries being cured include fever, nausea, chest pain, heel pain, pneumonia, smallpox, and rubella, as well as the ill consequences of a poorly administered bloodletting, the bite of a pinacate beetle, and intestinal parasites.
Series II includes 26 ex-votos dating from 1868 to 2000 and dedicated to several different titles of the Virgin Mary, including the Virgin of Guadalupe (12 ex-votos), the Virgin of the San Juan de los Lagos (7), and the Virgin of Zapopan (4). The Virgin is credited for having healed her worshippers of fever, pneumonia, measles, and narcolepsy, or for having given them the strength to overcome drug addictions, to recover after complicated surgeries, or to complete their medical studies. Comical undertones may sometimes be found. In a 1923 ex-voto, the Virgin of Guadalupe is given thanks for having healed a man's hangover. In another, a woman is grateful to the Virgin of Zapopan that her husband is no longer narcoleptic, although now he is awake at night and she is the one to have difficulty sleeping. Similar examples offer researchers the opportunity to assess the fluid boundary between heterodoxy and iconoclasm in Mexican folk religious practices.
Series III contains 5 ex-votos dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua, and dated from 1903 to 1980. Possibly in connection with the saint's traditional association with the infant Jesus, who regularly appears in St. Anthony's arms in all the items of this series, two ex-votos express gratitude after the children of the painting's commissioners have recovered their health – respectively, after having contracted pneumonia, and after an ankle operation. Other receivers of the saint's blessings include a man who successfully underwent stomach surgery, a woman who recovered after having suffered a spillage of bile, and a future husband whose life was spared after he had an embolic stroke at his wedding altar.
Series IV is devoted to St. James the Moor-slayer. In one of the 4 ex-votos of this series, painted between 1910 and 1934, Santiago – who in the traditional iconography is portrayed astride a white horse – is credited with having healed a man bitten by a horse. Two other ex-votos are related to physical injuries, one which prevented the victim from working the land; in another, the saint is given thanks after a woman recovered from a cold.
Series V is dedicated to Saint Paschal Baylon, patron saint of the kitchen and of cooks. All 4 of the ex-votos in this series, dated between 1923 and 1939, present a kitchen setting; and the kitchen itself, as well as the theme of food in general, often appear in the description at the bottom of these paintings. In one of them, a woman was able to lose weight after the saint's intervention. In another, a mother was cured from mastalgia, and could again breastfeed her children. References to specific historical circumstances surface in an ex-voto painted during the Cristero War of 1926 to 1929, in which the saint is remembered for having assisted a woman in curing a wounded rebel who had found shelter in her kitchen. In all the ex-votos the saint is referred to as "San Pascualito," a possible connection to the heterodox tradition of San Pascualito, particularly diffused in Mexico and Guatemala and not authorized by the Roman Church.
Series VI includes the ex-votos of the collection dedicated to Saint Barbara, Saint Judas Thaddeus, Saint Nicholas, and Saint Cosmas. Some of the ex-votos show a connection between the miracle being accomplished and the kind of protection associated with the venerated saint. Saint Judas Thaddeus, patron saint of desperate cases, is given thanks for having cured one man of rheumatism, and another of a fever that had kept him in bed for a long time. An ex-voto expresses gratitude to Saint Cosmas, patron of physicians, for having helped a nurse be transferred to another hospital unit. Another ex-voto, painted during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), is dedicated to Saint Nicholas, patron of children, who helped a pregnant woman to give birth after having been frightened by a group of Carrancistas (followers of the revolutionary leader Venustiano Carranza).The series also includes a portrait on wood of Saint Roch, possibly from Colombia and dated around 1875.
Items 1-6, 9-14, and 16 are housed in box 1; items 17-28 and 30 are housed in box 2; items 31-37 and 39-42 are housed in box 3; items 43-59 and 61 are housed in box 4; and items 7-8, 15, 29, 38, and 60 are housed in box 5.
Gift of Dr. William H. Helfand, 2015
- Folk art
- Votive offerings in art
- Votive offerings
- Christian art and symbolism
- Folk religion
- University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts
- Finding Aid Author
- Siel Agugliaro
- Finding Aid Date
- 2016 June 9
- Access Restrictions
This collection is open for research use.
- Use Restrictions
Copyright restrictions may exist. For most library holdings, the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania do not hold copyright. It is the responsibility of the requester to seek permission from the holder of the copyright to reproduce material from the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.