Painted sheets of fragile tin sit wrapped in paper, waiting for the Maitland Art Center to give them a second life. Pristinely kept and patiently guarded for many years by Mariolina Rizzi Salvatori, they are to reappear to the public May 11, announcing gratitude for miracles granted and lives saved.

Salvatori's personal collection of Mexican ex-votos — some dating back to the 1800s — has been turned into one of the largest exhibits of its kind; rarely is this religious art form heralded and almost never in a solo show. Her 60 selected ex-voto paintings represent a portrait of the Mexican people, their hardships and their connection to God. Ex-votos can either petition a deity for a miracle or give thanks for one, usually because of an accident or an ailment. A picture of Jesus, the Virgin Mary or a saint, and a depiction of the person involved characterize them. A brief summary of the problem or resolution, the date and the believer's thankfulness is added at the bottom.

On the few occasions when Salvatori takes an ex-voto out of its protective wrapping, inevitably one more paint chip flutters to the ground. "It's like a piece of my heart," she says. The paintings are seductive in their secrecy, but still crude. They are full of mystery, because we will never know the identity of the supplicant, and yet so telling, because the images represent countless forgotten moments of desperation and miracles delivered.

Salvatori, a graceful woman with an Italian accent, lives in Winter Park with her husband, a retired Westinghouse executive, for two-thirds of the year and spends the rest in Pennsylvania, where she teaches English composition and theories of literacy at the University of Pittsburgh. She's an avid collector of modern art and that's what brought her to a gallery in Philadelphia the day she bought her first treasure a decade ago. As a little girl, Salvatori says she was with her mother on a pilgrimage to the sanctuaries of Puglia, Italy, when she wandered behind an altar. Hundreds of small paintings were nailed to the wall. Images of children falling from buildings, surgeons wielding menacing knives and people engulfed by flames surrounded her. Years later, the scent of the candles, incense and muffled prayers of that day in Puglia returned to Salvatori when she saw her first Mexican ex-voto.

Still full of wonderment, she describes the painting that started her collection. A flat piece of tin, painted a light blue, but rusted. A man kneeling beneath a glorious Virgin of Guadalupe, surrounded by gold. Written in Spanish, a man's name, a date and the reason for his gratitude, but not the name of artist. The artist's name is never given, Salvatori says, because it is not important for the deity to know who painted it, but who is acknowledging the answered prayer.

Salvatori was entranced. She delved into research and started collecting in earnest, specializing in Mexican ex-votos. Today, there is still a surprising lack of information on ex-votos, making her collection, thought to be one of the largest in the United States, all that more unusual. A chance conversation between Salvatori's husband, Romano, and Gerry Shepp, executive director of the Maitland Art Center, on a trip to Mexico three years ago stimulated the debut of this exhibition, titled Ex Votos: Stories of Miracles.

The practice of offering an ex-voto began in 15th-century Italy and spread through parts of Europe. In the 18th century, the ritual was introduced to Mexico via Spanish settlers where it resonated as missionaries set about converting pagans into Catholics. By the 19th-century, cheap tin sheets became the affordable medium of the day, and ex-votos grew in popularity with the poor, and fell out of favor with the rich. The use of tin marks the time in Mexico when ex-votos became an art form by the poor, for the poor.

In many ways ex-votos are an unintentional indictment of both society and culture. Originally placed in community churches, the art works reflect the disparity between class, faith and economics that left the masses to pray for miracles instead of accessing helpful services available to the more fortunate. Faced with life-threatening situations, mostly illiterate devotees parted with precious money to have a barely literate artist paint a personalized ex-voto that would then be hung or placed behind a church altar — a miracle their only chance, the ex-voto the lifeline to the power above. Worry about health and survival is and was a common spur for an ex-voto, but there are also cries for marriage and conception among other pleas. Salvatori has one piece in which a young man is thankful that he was not seriously injured after he fainted when a young lady looked at him.

For the Maitland exhibit, there are attempted translations of the writing at the bottom of the ex-votos. Because the words are often in regional dialects and only semiliterate, however, there is a feeling among some collectors and scholars that words alone make it difficult to convey the essence of an ex-voto's origins and significance. It has also been said that once an ex-voto has been translated or taken outside of its original culture, the trespasser has appropriated the miracle that hopefully transpired. Taking this into account, the Maitland Art Center has done its best to maintain the flavor and integrity of the writing.

Because of this and the personal nature of the prayers they represent, Salvatori is very protective of her ex-votos. To her, the journey of the painting is significant, and the intention is no less important than it was the day it was created; no matter how long ago the miracle occurred, it is still being honored. She defends her decision for a public display.

"Exhibits can ignite respectful and responsible appreciation of cultural expressions and artifacts that would otherwise be ignored or remain marginal," she says.

Now, you can buy ex-votos on the street in Mexico, where the market economy has responded to resale value. Typically, the older the ex-voto, the more it's worth, so it's not uncommon for an original to be altered to fetch a higher price. Pre-made varieties are also for sale, like an ex-voto with the Twin Towers or alien abductions, and Salvatori doesn't feel that this is a total corruption. She says it keeps the art form alive and people interested. Older genuine ex-votos are increasingly hard to find and can range from $500 to $3,000 and higher, but the mass-produced ex-votos carry a price tag of approximately $20.

Salvatori's collection offers a rare opportunity to take in the juxtaposition of personal prayer and public thanking that is central to ex-votos. More specifically, these paintings capture the sincere faith of religious peoples in Mexico over the past couple of centuries. Even those who are not religious can relate to profound thankfulness.

(Opening reception 6:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m. Friday, May 11, 2007 at the Maitland Art Center; $5)

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