For millennia, the rocky ledges of Montserrat have been revered by those seeking to commune with the gods. In Roman times, the people of Catalan visited the mountain to make offerings at a temple dedicated to Venus. After Christianity weaved its way through the Iberian Peninsula, Venus’ temple was supplanted by a series of Catholic communities and churches, which evolved into the stunning Benedictine abbey that still clings stubbornly to the craggy Catalonian peak.
Today, Montserrat is one of Spain’s most popular pilgrimage sites. Just an hour journey from Barcelona, hundreds of thousands of visitors drive up a winding road or ride funiculars and cable cars to visit Montserrat each year. They marvel at the abbey’s architecture and world-class historical treasures. Pilgrims and non-believers alike delight in Montserrat’s boys choir, who intone Gregorian chants alongside monks. Bibliophiles can visit the 600-year-old Publicacions de l’Abadia de Montserrat, the oldest functioning publishing press in the world. Or after hiking mountain trails that thread through ancient forests and the ruins of medieval hermitages, visitors can peruse local farmers’ offerings of cheese, honey, preserves, and baked goods.
Amidst these historical and natural attractions, since the 12th century, the pièce de résistance at Montserrat has been a 38-inch tall Romanesque statue of a Black Madonna, La Moreneta, or “the little dark one”—the most venerated Black Mary in Europe.
The mystery of Montserrat’s La Moreneta is a story unto itself, well worth a deep dive into an internet rabbit hole. But for us, the most interesting and unexpected treasures in Montserrat were the waxen ex voto body parts that pilgrims leave behind as offerings to La Moreneta.
While not popular in the United States, ex voto offerings take many shapes and forms in Europe. Ex voto, short for the Latin phrase ex voto suscepto, which translates as from the vow made, are left by the grateful devoted in appreciation for answered prayers. In Montserrat, an entire room is bedecked with paintings, handwritten letters, dog-eared photographs, wedding dresses, small statues, clippings of hair, toys, crutches, canes, military medals, and even an entire baby carriage. The pastiche of sacrificial leave-behinds is overwhelming. And amidst the clutter of personal items and ephemera, is an impressive collection of anatomical wax body parts and organs known as ex voto anatomico.
Ex voto anatomico range from arms, legs, ear, noses, eyes, fingers, and other external body parts, to a broad bevy of internal organs such as kidneys, brains, hearts, lungs, stomachs, and bowels. There are even full-body, life-sized ex voto anatomico that vary from small newborn babies to full grown toddlers.
And the tradition of waxen ex voto anatomico is not unique to Montserrat.
Lúcia Santos, Jacinta Marto, and Francisco Marto were young shepherd children, when in 1917, they claimed to witness a series of Marian apparitions in Fatima, Portugal. As newspapers spread the word of the children’s supposed visions, pilgrims began visiting the small town. The events and visitations culminated on October 13, 1917, when tens of thousands of people gathered in Fatima to witness a prophesized astronomical event, which would later become known as the Miracle of the Sun—and transform the pastoral village of Fatima into a world-renowned pilgrimage site.
At Fatima, waxen ex voto anatomico play a central role in the pilgrim experience. The Portuguese refer to them as promessas de cera—and tourists burn two to three tons of them each month. In the heart of the gargantuan complex of Fatima, the church sells simple candles of varying sizes and quantities to pilgrims who wish to venerate Our Lady of Fatima. However, outside the church grounds and in town, hundreds of vendors hawk sculpted limbs and waxen organs alongside glow-in-the-dark plastic statues of the Virgin Mary. The thriving businesses, sustained by millions of tourists and pilgrims each year, sell the wax anatomico for as little as 3 euro for smaller pieces and upward of 150 euro for larger, more-detailed pieces.
When we visited Fatima, we purchased an arm, an ear, a foot, and a large intestine for about 30 euro. And though it was easy to procure the body parts at Fatima, when we were selected for a bag search at the airport on the way home, it wasn’t quite as easy to explain what we carrying back into the states. But most people don’t take their ex voto anatomico home with them as souvenirs.
What’s unique about Fatima compared to Montserrat, are the roaring fire pits that reside on the grounds of the shrine. Within these expansive pits, intensely hot open-air fires burn throughout the year. After devoted believers purchase their kidneys, arms, brains, legs, or even an entire waxen baby—they cast the anatomico into the blazing fires and watch them melt. A physical embodiment of the pilgrim’s gratitude for Her intercession on their behalf—the smoke wafts up to Our Lady of Fatima in heaven—not unlike an ethereal smoke signal.
The fires, the smoke, the piety, and the faithful crowds of Fatima bear a striking resemblance to the sacrifice of living animals that may have occurred at Venus’ temple in Montserrat prior to the spread of Christianity. That resemblance seemed even cannier when we noticed that in addition to human anatomico, vendors were also selling waxen ex voto of cats, dogs, and other pets that could be cast into the fires to thank Mary for Her intercession on behalf of a beloved pet.
Yes Virginia—dogs do go to heaven. Or at least in Fatima they do.
Whatever form ex voto take—each is a prompt begging a story. For the grateful pilgrim, the object is the embodiment of their gratitude for a treasured intercession. But for the external viewer, each ex voto, waxen or otherwise, is not only a testimonial to the giver’s faith, but also a catalyst that connects us and poses questions. Did the woman who wrote the letter to the Virgin Mary truly find happiness? What illness or sadness beset the small children in the old photo? Did the Virgin Mary heal the man who left behind his crutches—or was it only a temporary reprieve? What of the soldiers, the veterans, the brides? And the mother who went so far as to leave her baby’s carriage as a totem of her faith and gratitude?
And what of the wanly serious woman who gingerly placed the life-size waxen baby into the blazing flames at Fatima? Watching as the wax face slowly collapsed and melted into the fire, I couldn’t help but wonder what miracle had inspired the woman’s strange—yet tearfully sincere—waxen sacrifice.