Faith and Transformation: Votive Offerings and Amulets from the Alexander Girard Collection

Edited by Doris Francis. 2007. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press. Published in Association with the Museum of International Folk Art. 158 pages. ISBN: 978-0-89013-504-4 (soft cover).

Reviewed by William Hansen, Indiana University

[Review length: 872 words • Review posted on February 27, 2008]

Alexander Girard (1907-1993) was a graphic designer whose artistic productions were much influenced by folk art, which he collected enthusiastically from the 1930s to the 1970s. He organized his collection in accordance with his own interests, which were those of a professional artist. As he bluntly remarked, “I bought this stuff to spark my creativity” (8). His collection came to include over 100,000 pieces from a hundred countries.

Girard moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1953, the year in which the Museum of International Folk Art opened its doors. In 1978 the Girard Foundation Collection of Folk Art was donated to the state of New Mexico, and a Girard Wing was added to the museum, where Girard himself supervised the installation of a portion of his collection. When new construction was undertaken, the panels devoted to amulets and ex votos were put into storage. They were taken out again in 2007 as a component of the Girard Centennial Celebration, an event that, one assumes, served as the impetus for the making and the timing of the present book.

An amulet is an object that is thought or hoped to offer its possessor protection from a particular kind of harm such as from the effects of the evil eye, or to enhance its possessor’s chances for success in some uncertain aspect of life such as health, wealth, or romance. An ex voto, on the other hand, is a votive offering, that is, a donation made to a deity or saint in repayment of a vow (Latin ex voto means “result of a vow”). To take an imaginary example, a woman asks a particular saint to intercede on behalf of her leg pains, promising to acknowledge the intercession; when the favor is granted, she attaches a metal plaque in the shape of a leg to the image of the saint in a local chapel. Sometimes the sequence in reversed, the suppliant offering his or her token proactively in the hope that the deity or saint will grant the request.

So amulets and ex votos are quite dissimilar in function, and if Girard had been an ethnographer, we may suppose that he might not have mixed them together in his museum displays. But he approached them as aesthetically pleasing objects of art and organized his display panels without explanatory labels because he intended them to be enjoyed in their immediacy as “a purely visual experience” (9) for their artistic ideas, their interesting variations on recurrent themes, and their execution. Girard created altogether fifty-two display panels, each panel showing a more-or-less bilaterally symmetrical arrangement of objects.

Faith and Transformation starts off with an essay on Girard and a general introduction to amulets and ex votos contributed by editor Doris Francis, and it wraps up with a list of suggested readings and with a resource guide offering hints about places where one may view or purchase amulets and ex votos. The body of the book consists of numerous short essays on some twenty-three different countries or regions (or, in the case of Byzantium, an historical period) contributed by scholars from an impressive variety of lands and disciplines. The contributors accept Girard’s idiosyncratic museum displays as they are, but recontextualize the objects ethnographically by describing their uses in different traditions and sometimes also by explaining their imagery or their manufacture. Most essays take one or more of Girard’s display panels as their point of departure and are accompanied by excellent color photos of the panels. The essays are uniformly accessible, interestingly written, and informative. The result is a work that lies somewhere between an exhibition catalogue and a cross-cultural reader.

Individual countries generally get two pages of treatment, but a few receive extensive coverage, as in the eighteen pages devoted to Mexican milagros, ambers, paper figures, pilgrimages, mystical powders, and so on. The unevenness reflects the fact that in Girard’s collection some countries are more richly represented than others. The contributors’ emphasis throughout is emphatically synchronic, resulting in a certain temporal flatness. Now and then a reference is made to the Old World source of a New World practice or to the long history of a particular tradition. Amulets, for example, are found in the Egypt of today but also in ancient Egypt (100). The commentators on the Greek and Byzantine objects could have mentioned that ex votos in stone survive from ancient Greece, some of them quite like their modern counterparts--eyes, ears, hands, arms, legs, breasts, and so on.[1]

A tension runs throughout the work between the predominantly aesthetic attitude of Girard and the predominantly ethnographic approach of the scholars, between the pictures and the words. In the end I came to regard this tension as one of the book’s pluses, since the scholars themselves do not have much to say about the items as objects of art. All in all this is an engaging and informative book on phenomena that have been attracting increasing interest on the part of scholars and collectors.

1. An illustrated survey of body-part votives from the ancient Greek world has been made by Björn Forsén, Griechische Gliederweihungen: Eine Untersuchung zu ihrer Typologie und ihrer religions- und sozialgeschichtlichen Bedeutung, Papers and Monographs of the Finnish Institute at Athens, 4 (Helsinki 1996).

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.