Photographic Votive Offerings in the Alentejo region of Portugal

Milene Trindade is a PhD candidate in History of Art at the University of Évora, Portugal. She is currently writing her thesis on Devotion, Art and Technique: Photographic Ex-votos in the Alentejo Region in the 19th and 20th centuries.

(Affiliations: HERCULES Laboratory – Cultural Heritage, Studies and Safeguard, and CHAIA – Centre for Art History and Artistic Research)

Since photography was presented to the world in 1839, societies have started to introduce photographs into every aspect of life, using them to register landscape, architecture, nature and people. When we study the evolution of photographic techniques and subjects, we soon see that portraits were one of the main themes used in photography. This popularity had a close relation with the tradition of painted portraits, but also with the development of certain photographic techniques and formats. A good example is the carte de visite [1] format (LAVÉDRINE, B. 2013), commonly found in 19th century collections, and more specifically in family albums. From the earliest printed formats right until the present day, albums are a key form for understanding the technological progress of photography and its assimilation by different societies. One of the novelties of the printed image was the possibility of learning about the facial characteristics of our ancestors, via images that were more detailed and much more affordable than paintings. As we know, recognizing ourselves in the images of our family members can play a vital role in identity-construction. But the narratives and the temporal lineages that we can read in the pages of a photographic album are also very important. Family albums tell us stories about our own lives and the life of others, and they can influence the definition of who and what we are, enriching our personal references (BARTHES, R. 1980).

The evolution of photography as a social instrument and its relation with religious tradition inspired my PhD research project on photographic votive offerings (ex-votos) placed in shrines in Portugal. In the south of the country, it is possible to visit shrines with spaces filled with photographic portraits. My research centres on four case studies: Ermida de Nossa Senhora do Carmo, Azaruja; Santuário do Sr. Jesus da Piedade, Elvas; Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Visitação, Montemor-o-Novo and Santuário de Nossa Senhora d’Aires, Viana do Alentejo. All of these sites are located in the Central and Upper Alentejo; other sites can be found, albeit more sparsely, in other regions of the country. These ex-votos, or as local people call them, promessas (promises), were offered to Our Lady or Jesus Christ, representing the fulfilment of a vow. While my personal interest is in photography, it is nevertheless important to remark on the presence of other typologies of votive offerings, such as anatomical sculptures or paintings, which were crucial to the introduction of photography. Photography became increasingly popular since its invention and diffusion in the first part of the 19th century, and in the last part of the 19th century people started to use photographs as votive offerings. While photographs often constitute more practical (i.e. easily acquired) offerings than paintings, they are far from superficial: in the intimate world of family relations, photographs – with their links to issues such as mimesis, identity, memory and heritage – are a highly efficient medium for symbolizing someone’s presence.

In Portugal, photographic ex-votos gained even more currency during the Colonial War, which took place between 1961 and 1974. For thirteen years, thousands of photographs – mainly portraits of the military – were offered in shrines, representing one of the most important moments in the modern history of the country. Most of these offerings were made by family members like mothers and wives, as we can read in the texts attached to the images. We also find offerings made by soldiers, fulfilling their promises after returning safely home. As the war progressed, we find examples of offerings being made before the soldiers’ departures, asking for protection during their years of mission.

Figure 1. Room with photographic votive offerings displayed on the walls. Shrine of Nossa Senhora do Carmo, Portugal (author’s own photograph, 2019)

This ritual of making photographic offerings was so intense that shrine rooms often ran out of space (Figure 1). When we observe the collections now, we can verify that only in very few cases are the photographs in the place that was originally chosen by the person who made the offering. Most of the time, we are dealing with new organizations. In some cases, the distribution and re-arrangement of the photographic pictures has been done by the  shrine leader or the brotherhood. The use of photographic albums has been an option for the most recent pictures, which generally present a standard format, without a frame. The lack of environmental control or proper mounting and handling has led to deterioration in many cases (see for example Figures 2 and 3) (PAVÃO, L. 2001). There are many issues around the preservation of this material, especially since the collections have grown without any exhibition criteria or inventories, and without much knowledge of the photographs’ physical fragility. I would argue that photograph conservators and historians can make useful interventions to help preserve the photographs, and emphasise their heritage value.

Figure 2 (left). Portrait of a child. Unknown author and date. Silver gelatin print. Object dimensions: 13x17cm. Visible deterioration: Stains and image loss due to biodeterioration and high relative humidity. Dust accumulation and lacuna in the frame.
(Author’s own photograph reproduction, 2019)
Figure 3 (right). Portrait of a family. Photographer: Ricardo Santos. Around 1900 in Évora. Unknown process. Object dimensions: 13x17cm. Visible deterioration: Image fading and yellowing due to light exposure and high relative humidity. Dust accumulation and lacuna in the frame.
(Author’s own photograph reproduction, 2019)

On the walls of all these Portuguese shrines we find echoes of family photo albums: here, though, these personal images are set in the context of a much larger community. These collections point not only to personal issues, but also to social and historical events, and show us how local people embraced photography to communicate their everyday concerns. My research project aims to contribute to an understanding of the cultural heritage value of these collections and the need for their preservation, by proposing a guidance strategy for exhibition and safeguarding.

by Milene Trindade

[1] Cartes de Visite (visiting cards) consist of photographic paper mounted on a thicker paper card. The standard dimension is 69x110mm. Usually used for portraits, this format was patented in 1854 by the photographer André Disdéri. The main innovation consisted in the production of several images in the same wet plate collodion, using a special chassis and a camera with multiple lenses.


BARTHES, R. (1980) La chambre claire. Note sur la photographie. Cahiers du cinema. Paris: Gallimard Seuil. pp. 99 – 110

LAVÉDRINE, B. (2013) (Re)Connaître et conserver les photographies anciennes. Paris: Éditions du Comité des travaux historiques et scientifiques, Collections orientations et méthodes n.º 10. p. 122

PAVÃO, L. (2001) Conservación de Colecciones de Fotografía, Cuadernos Técnicos, Granada: Editora Junta de Andalucia. pp. 151-172


Milene Trindade acknowledges FCT – Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia, POCH – Programa Operacional Capital Humano and European Union for scholarship SFRH/BD/122626/2016, and the directors of the thesis, Paulo Simões Rodrigues, Teresa Ferreira and Alice Nogueira Alves.








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