The vast sertão, or interior, of northeastern Brazil, is the country's least industrialized and most mysterious region. For centuries, its original indigenous population has been blended with both Europeans and descendants of African slaves. In this arid area marked by persistent poverty, religious beliefs serve to provide a refuge from hardship and to cope with adversity, be it death, disease, accidents, violence, or natural disasters. Religious cults are still of a home–made variety here. They combine elements of Catholicism with indigenous and African belief systems.
A visitor to Brazil's rural Northeast may come upon a religious sanctuary in a small provincial town or remote village to find it filled with wooden figures and body parts, and scores of sculpted heads with wide–eyed faces staring vaguely into space.
The ex–voto or milagre, as it is called in rural Brazil, is a product of this rural Folk Catholicism, and a unique form of popular art. Haunting three–dimensional objects — heads, hands, feet, hearts and breasts, or entire human figures, farm animals and their parts, and other symbols of human life and survival, are carved from wood, or, less frequently, sculpted from clay — direct manifestations of the Catholic "miracle" as understood in this region.
Physical proof of such a miracle (milagre) performed by a saint in response to a believer's plight, the objects represent the fulfillment of a vow (hence ex–voto) or promise (promesa) made in return for a favor granted, often in combination with a special pilgrimage. Frequently, but not always, in the form of body parts, ex–votos represent the nature of the petitioner's problem, often a physical one, as well as the fact that the favor sought was granted. It is thus not unusual for them to show physical deformities, wounds, scars, or other evidence of disease.
Brazil's sertão is dotted with pilgrimage churches or "houses of miracles" dedicated to a particular Catholic saint, or home–made folk saint, where hundreds of wooden and clay ex–votos and other votive objects are placed in bins by faithful recipients of a miracle, or are suspended from walls or ceilings. Their creators are usually self–taught artisans — men and women from the local community who may make their living as subsistence farmers or in a variety of trades. These "miracle makers" typically seek commissions from petitioners to produce a particular ex–voto object responding to a specific personal crisis. Other artisans may produce votive sculptures (heads, limbs, et cetera) "on spec" in anticipation of a patron saint's feast day or major seasonal pilgrimage which traditionally bring successful petitioners eager to make good on their vow or promise.
While all too often this art form has been dismissed as "primitive," the Brazilian scholar Lelia Coelho Frota rightfully observes that "although hand–sculpted ex–votos are produced by the hundreds in northeastern Brazil, they retain the vigor of deeply felt art." No two are ever alike. Some ex–voto heads and body parts are largely naturalistic and fashioned to produce a likeness to the person at the center of the divine intercession. Many are more schematized, almost abstract, yet they retain a powerful expressive quality. Many are personalized by the petitioner. They may be signed and dated and indicate the believer's place of origin. Others may be adorned with fancy ribbons, or they may feature photos, personal notes, or expressions of gratitude. Occasionally they are enhanced with colors and paint.
The precise origin and meaning of the sculpted Brazilian ex–voto is not entirely known. Scholars agree, however, that this art form combines Iberian Catholic devotional practices with an African aesthetic and, as some suggest, perhaps with an African spiritual content. Three–dimensional ex–voto has often been associated with African artistry. Ex–voto heads in particular have been variably described by Brazilian cultural historians as "cubist" sculptures and as shaped by the "African cut." Some researchers speculate that these votive objects may even have the protective properties of African charms or amulets, especially since they are believed by many Brazilians to have a magic function, in that the misfortune in question is supposed to be absorbed by the wooden object.
Whatever their exact function and meaning, which may vary somewhat by sanctuary or community, wooden and clay–sculpted ex–votos may soon be a thing of the past as they are increasingly replaced by factory–made, mass–produced replicas. While these are physically and visually banal, they still carry a personal message and retain their ritual content and symbolism. They continue to be signifiers of a profound faith in the supernatural — the milagre.