After 9/11, Alfredo Vilchis made a votive painting to help the US government catch Osama bin Laden.

Mexico City, Mexico

“I thank the Virgin of Guadalupe for the invention of Viagra so I can satisfy my wife who is 15 years younger.” Painted on a tin sheet next to the image of a couple sharing a postcoital cigarette in bed, this caption is part of a Mexican ex voto painting: a religious work of art created as a gesture of thankfulness for Spanish conquest in the 1500s, ex-votos were initially commissioned by the wealthy, painted on canvas and donated to churches. In the 18th century, painters began making cheap tin versions for people’s home shrines. While many paintings feature universal themes such as health and accidents, with operating theaters and flying limbs common elements, others are uniquely Mexican, thanking God for the victory of a favorite Lucha Libre wrestler, or safe passage to the USA without being detected by border guards. A Virgin or Saint often blesses the scene from the top corner, and a detailed caption sits at the bottom.

“It is an act of faith,” says Mexico Citybased ex-voto artist Alfredo Vilchis. “I ask people to tell me their stories and I start sketching right away. I ask them what clothes they were wearing, what street it happened on. Sometimes I visit the exact street to make it more realistic.” Most ex-votos are created by untrained artists, but in 2011, 16 of Vilchis’ ex-votos were exhibited at the Louvre in Paris, France, next to works by better-known Mexican artists including Betsabeé Romero and Frida Kahlo. Vilchis credits the latter for giving him the courage to paint subjects that would not normally appear in a Catholic painting.


“If she painted it, why shouldn’t I? I should not be afraid; I should show what I feel,” he says. “This is why I’ve painted exvotos for gay couples, prostitutes, junkies, secret loves.” To create art for the prostitutes, Vilchis hits the streets of La Merced, a Mexico City neighborhood, asking them “for 10 minutes and an anecdote.” Some commission Vilchis to thank the Virgin for protecting them on the job, others make a wish for their pimp to never return: “People ask me how I can paint a prostitute next to the Virgin of Guadalupe,” he says. “But we all have the right to ask for a favor.”


Mexico's exvoto saints

[1] Saint Sebastian

Since the Renaissance, Saint Sebastian has been painted nearly naked, writhing in a mix of pain and ecstasy as he is pierced by arrows. He is considered by some to be history’s first gay icon and unofficial patron saint of homosexuals.

[2] Santo Niño de Atocha

In the mid-19th century, an expanding US-Mexican transnational railroad network made the basket-laden infant Jesus or Santo Niño de Atocha into a popular patron of travelers and human traffickers.

Diyexvoto2[3] Saint Simon

Officially the provider of rain and fertility, Saint Simon of Guatemala also takes drunkards and gamblers under his wing, bringing them wealth and worldly success in exchange for offerings of alcohol, tobacco and Coca-Cola.

[4] San Honesto

In 2006, Mexican designer Luisa Gloria invented San Honesto, the patron saint of corruption. Depicted with a mirror for a face, San Honesto fights bribes by making people aware of their own actions.



From the pages of COLORS #87 - Looking at Art.