Gifts of Gratitude: Votive Objects in Rome and Thuringia

— Kristine Iara

This blog piece links some spatial and temporal aspects and realities of my existence: classical antiquity to contemporary culture on the one hand, Rome and Erfurt on the other. It will do so by looking at votive objects in both cities in the past and present.

Votive objects, be it votive offerings, sacred dedications or ex voto, are gifts to the gods made by humans, set up in a sacred place for religious purpose. They are a feature of ancient and modern societies alike and are attested in diverse contexts and settings, sharing though a common scope: by setting up votive objects, the individuals seek to enter in communication with the gods, specifically, either expressing gratitude towards a deity or anticipating thanksgiving, or a votive would fulfill vows taken. In some cases, votives can also be commanded by a god. This common scope – the need of communication with the divine – notwithstanding, the dedicatory practice in the ancient world – or rather, the beliefs behind the practice – was fundamentally different from such practices in Christianity (Brodel 2009), and there is a fundamental difference in areas of Catholicism and Protestantism respectively. As the question why this particular religious behavior is not common to Protestantism is too large a topic to be discussed in this piece, the focus will now rest on examples from Roman Catholicism in Thuringia and Italy.

In classical antiquity, votive offerings were ubiquitous in sacred space. There was a great variety ranging from elaborate and valuable objects to small scale and simple ones, often objects of mass production. Votive objects could be dedicated by individuals or groups alike. The typical situations for offering a votive to a god were victories achieved, or rescue in shipwreck or from any other danger; or being healed or aspiring healing from various diseases. Thus, Greek and Roman sanctuaries were full of votive objects typical for these occasions: statues or tripods for victories in agonistic games; weapons and trophies for victories on battlefield, parts and pieces of ships after surviving shipwreck, and anatomical votives, reproductions of body parts of all kind, especially in healing sanctuaries, or on sites of pilgrimage. As also in classical antiquity, acquiring these frequently standardised objects was and is made easy for the believers: shops were or are in close proximity to the sanctuary or to the church respectively.

When visiting the Chiesa della Madonna del Carmine in Campania in Italy some years ago, I was thrilled to encounter the same variety of votives as I am used to work with as a classical archaeologist: body parts in silver and gold or wax, to express gratitude towards God or the Virgin Mary for healing; discarded crutches, or small scale paintings representing hospital scenes or rescue from shipwreck, to name a few. A novelty in our present-day culture are gilded syringes or cigarette packets, dedicated by grateful ex-addicts (or their loved ones). Not only this particular church, but many others in Italy, specifically in the south, feature great collections of votive objects; the same is the case for any other area where Catholicism is strong.

In Rome, near where I live and thus both an everyday encounter and an object of continuous monitoring, there is a wall on Viale di Trastevere featuring a small aedicula chapel that is dedicated to the Madonna degli Orfani, created by Arrigo Minerbi in 1944.

Ex voto on the wall of former orphanage Madonna degli Orfani (Holy Virgin of the Orphans) in viale Trastevere, Rome, Italy (Sergio D’Afflitto, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Immediately after its construction in the mid-forties of the 19th century, it became a spot of practiced lived religion. Bunches of flowers, votive candles, and, most of all, smaller and larger votive plaques, in metal or marble or other stones, in ever growing quantity. These plaques bear an inscription the plainest of which consists simply of the acronym PGR (Per grazia ricevuta). Sometimes the name of the grateful individual is added, or his or her name and the date. There are also plaques that contain longer, detailed narratives, and some inscriptions reveal a very personal relationship with the Madonna (mammina celeste).

Having in mind these two phenomena, distant in time and space – the votive objects in sanctuaries in classical times as objects of study on the one hand, manifestations of lived religion in contemporary catholic Italy on the other – I wondered whether this kind of religious practice can also be found in Erfurt.  

Erfurt Cathedral (left) and St Severus’s Church (right) (Eremeev, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Situated in predominantly protestant Thuringia, Erfurt has nevertheless a few Catholic churches. I received a positive answer to my inquiries about votive objects preserved in churches only in case of the Erfurter Dom[1], which turned out to be a fortunate case. Dr Falko Bornschein, the art historian of the diocese and responsible for all pieces of religious art in the area, is an expert and pointed me towards three objects[2] perfectly suited for this inquiry and apparently the only surviving ones.

The first of these is within the cathedral itself, a monumental wall painting (1499) representing St Christopher[3]. Markus Decker, commissioner and donor of the painting, is represented in the left bottom of the painting in the act of praying. The inscription in Latin, Deprecor ad coelum mane o christophore prefer reveals the painting as a veritable ex voto: Markus Decker was rescued from the river Werra on one of his trips as provost of Langensalza and commissioned the painting afterwards as a gift of thanksgiving.

The second ex voto example from Thuringia is close to Erfurt: the chapel St. Marien in Elende (Bleicherode), formerly the destination of pilgrimage for centuries, contained the Gnadenbild, a statue of the Virgin Mary, created at the beginning of the 15th century. This statue was perceived as miraculous and granting grace; her intervention was sought after for healing and for aid in other urgent concerns.

The numerous votive objects – anatomical votives mostly – are not longer preserved. Still, the appurtenant Mirakelbuch, a manuscript inventory, contains for the time span from 1414 to 1517 the long list of 476 thanksgivings and prayers to the Virgin Mary – this too is a striking parallel to classical antiquity, insofar as many sanctuaries kept inventory lists of the votive objects received, most famously at the sanctuary of Artemis on Lindos island. The statue of the Virgin Mary was brought to Heiligenstadt at the beginning of the 17th century; originally in the church of St Martin’s (Heiligenstadt), she was later transferred to the church of St Mary’s when the former church was converted to Protestantism. The Mirakelbuch is nowadays also preserved in the Heimatmuseum Heiligenstadt, which was renamed in 2017 to Eichsfeldmuseum Heiligenstadt.

Gnadenbild or Statue of Virgin Mary, nowadays in Heiligenstadt. Image: Regina Englert, EKMD
Mirakelbuch of Elende, nowadays in Heiligenstadt. Image: Regina Englert, EKMD

The examples shown here, be it those of classical antiquity, of contemporary Campania or in Rome, or medieval Thuringia show similar features in form and content. Regarding the physical appearance of the objects – the anatomic votives, or the shipwreck scenes, or the statuettes – there are (transepochal?) similarities/continuities, also concerning the vide variety of scale and material of the objects, which attest to the diverging spending capacity of the praying individuals, indicating that this religious practice transcended social strata. The inscriptions, often formulaic, in each context may also reveal very personal features. The most striking parallel however is in the motivation behind the practice: Individuals felt and feel in need of the help of supernatural beings – be it Greek or Roman gods, the god of the Christians, the Virgin Mary or the saints of the Catholic church – and, at the same time, they felt and feel gratitude and the need to express it in form of gifts to the gods. People, apparently, show similar religious behavior, independently of the god or gods in question, of the time they live in, or the region.

— Kristine Iara is an archaeologist and was a Fellow of the “Religion and Urbanity” research group in winter 2022. In her post-doctoral research she focuses on late antique Rome and the topography of Roman religion in the period of the transition from imperial times to late antiquity and the emergence of Christianity. Her research interests cover Imperial and late antique Rome, urban
space, Roman religion in the imperial
time as well as the materiality of religion.

We would like to particularly thank Regina Englert from the Evangelische Kirche in Mitteldeutschland (EKMD) for her kind permission to use her photographs of the Rosenkirche in Elende and the Mirakelbuch. The chapel in Elende is today known locally as the Rosenkirche (Chruch of Roses) and is an open church, i.e. one that can be accessed everyday at all times.

[1] St Mary’s cathedral, 12th century. In case of all the other churches, the responsible persons wrote back, but negatively; in one case, I was told that such objects are to be found only in Germany’s Catholic south.

[2] Two objects will be treated here, not the third, though, for reasons of space. This is the Romanesque Eichsfelder Hülfenskreuz, a crucifix preserved in the church St Salvator near Geismar in the Eichsfeld region, and also sought after for help and aid; it is still a destination for pilgrimage.

[3] The painter is supposedly Linhart Koenbergk, further Bornschein 2006 and 2011.

Works Cited

J. Bodel, Sacred dedications. A problem of definitions, in J. Bodel & M. Kajava (eds), Dediche sacre nel mondo greco-romano. Diffusione, funzioni, tipologie. Religious dedications in the Greco-Roman world. Distribution, typology, use. Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae 35 (Rome: Institutum Romanum Finlandiae 2009), 17-30.

F. Bornschein, Das Wandgemälde des hl. Christophorus im Dom zu Erfurt, Stadt und Geschichte: Zeitschrift für Erfurt 30, 2006:2, 18-19.

F. Bornschein, Die heiligen Adolar und Eoban in der mittelalterlichen und frühneuzeitlichen Kunst am Erfurter Dom, Jahrbuch für Erfurter Geschichte 6, 2011, 33-130.

Iara, Kristine. “Gifts of Gratitude: Votive Objects in Rome and Thuringia”. Religion and Urbanity Blog. KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” (FOR 2779). 12/06/2023.

Cite this blog post
urbrel (2023, June 12). Gifts of Gratitude: Votive Objects in Rome and Thuringia. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved April 21, 2024, from

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