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Keeping the faith

Ex-voto paintings tell of miraculous survivals at sea, says Fiona Vella.

Carmen Axiaq with her ex-voto painting.Carmen Axiaq with her ex-voto painting.

In the old days, the sea played a prominent role in peoples’ lives, especially to island inhabitants. It was a source of livelihood for fishermen, a fortuitous space for pirates, a bridge to other countries for travellers, merchants, diplomats, and armies.

People were constantly aware of the risk that travelling by sea involved. They feared corsair attacks and the aggression of unknown species lurking in the depths.

Yet no threat was worse than the possibility of experiencing a terrible storm where the sea turned into a formidable voracious colossus which could engulf whatever and whoever dared to face its deadly rage.

People in distress were generally left to deal with their own fate. Ironically it was often faith which led to their survival.

Historical sources describe how people created ingenious ways of dealing with these dangers by formulating different ways to guarantee a safer voyage, habitually intermingling religion with superstition.

All paintings relate the same basic tendency of humans to turn to faith and prayers especially when everything seems to be lost

One of these practices in Malta involved the production of sacred coins which could be thrown into the sea to calm down the troubled waters. Indeed, sailors were urged to buy these coins, which were made out of blessed white candle, a day before Easter, since failure to do so was believed to bring bad luck. On the other hand, local fishermen are known to have written a secret prayer which only the eldest of them knew and which only they could recite in order to protect their boat from the threat of bad weather.

Although hundreds of years have passed from these experiences, nowadays we still have the opportunity to witness the ordeal that our ancestors went through while out at sea. We have many of these testimonies in the form of ex-voto paintings, which show the eventful moments of people in distress at sea saved by their faith.

Sadly, although we have lost many of these ex-voto paintings along the years, mainly due to improper storage and poor conservation methods, we still find various examples in numerous chapels, churches, sanctuaries and museums around the island. Among these, we find 183 maritime ex-voto paintings in the sanctuary of Our Lady of Tal-Ħerba in Birkirkara, and another 64 in the sanctuary of Our Lady in Mellieħa.

Another interesting collection of ex-voto paintings is found at the Żabbar Sanctuary Museum. Unfortunately, from the original collection of 300 maritime ex-voto paintings, today only 85 remain. However, as Ġużeppi Theuma, Secretary of the Żabbar Sanctuary Museum Commission tells me, the museum is proud to possess the oldest maritime ex-voto painting in Malta, but which as yet is still undated. The next dated ex-voto painting in this collection goes back to 1631, as the inscription on the painting clearly shows. Moreover, this particular painting manifests the full interpretation of the initials V.F.G.A., which is generally found on these paintings. These letters stand for Votum Fecit et Gratiam Accepit, which means, “a promise was made and grace was given”.

Ex-voto paintings vary in style and artistry, since they cover various periods of time and also because they were donated by people from different levels of society and not everyone could afford to engage the best painters. Indeed, the acute details that one can observe in some of these works provide valuable information on the different type of vessels that were used over the years. Nevertheless, all paintings relate the same basic tendency of humans to turn to faith and prayers especially when everything seems to be lost.

The power of prayer

An intriguing observation is that even when sailing on foreign seas, other than the Mediterranean and therefore far away from Malta, local sailors and the Knights of the Order of St John generally directed their prayers to the Virgin Mary. In fact, the Virgin Mary is clearly displayed in each of these ex-voto paintings in order to show the viewers to whom the donator had prayed while in trouble. This act was meant as a thanksgiving but it was also intended to act as proof of the miraculous power of the Virgin Mary and therefore to increase faith in her.

Although the tradition of donating ex-voto paintings has almost died out, it is interesting to note that this custom is still practised in Malta. In fact, the most recent maritime ex-voto painting in the Żabbar Sanctuary Museum was donated by Carmen Axiaq on September 21, 2012. I met the donor at the museum, where she explained the painful moments that she and her family went through when her husband Mario was lost at sea for two days after he got disoriented in the fog while fishing. As the search went on and days passed, the possibility of finding him alive started to fade and Carmen and her family were left with no other hope except to turn to the Virgin Mary and supplicate her intervention to assist Mario.

While her daughter went on Dingli cliffs shouting out her father’s name in the fervent wish to do something to help, Carmen turned to Our Lady of Graces of the Żabbar Sanctuary and asked her to use one of the 12 stars with which she is blessed to light the way so that her husband could return safely.

Thankfully, Mario was found in time by the authorities and brought back to land. The family was overwhelmed with happiness but they did not forget who had helped them in their distress. Together they composed an ex-voto painting in which they narrated their story. They adorned it with photos and handmade decorations so that whoever sees it can be reminded of the miraculous power of prayer and of the greatness of the Virgin Mary.

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