Call for paper: Materializing desires

What can be said with « things » that cannot be stated in words? The ex-voto as a form offers a key paradigm for understanding the part played by materiality in transactions with the invisible. From Neolithic Cyprus, Minoan Crete, 5th century Greece, the last century in the Trobriand Islands, 15th century Italy, 20th century Paris to 21st century Tokyo, men an women have ben expressing their suffering and desires through objects. This remarkable documentation has too often been relegated to museum inventories and studies on art and popular devotion.

In recent years, these practices have been the focus of several studies in art history that have deeply transformed our perception of this phenomenon[1]. In the past three years, they have also been the object of a seminar at the EHESS (“ Saintetés, sacralités, dévotions. Pour une anthropologie historique de l’objet votif, or “Sanctity, sacredness, devotion. Towards a historical anthropology of votive objects”). The journal Techniques&Culture is now launching this call for papers aimed at capturing the heuristic power of ex-voto objects by drawing from the widest range of resources.

To better capture the scale of this phenomenon, we need to momentarily set aside the world of boat models and small “naive” paintings offered as tokens of gratitude, in order to consider this practice in all its diversity. From wax artifacts placed in churches to fruit and vegetable offerings on altars, animal figurines, paintings by Raphaël, Poussin and Ingres, or village squares and churches, almost anything can be invested with votive meaning.

While the accumulation of diseased organs, crutches and orthopedic casts inevitably brings to mind a collective display of intimate suffering, the diversity of contemporary practices leads us to reconsider this phenomenon within the context of consumer culture. We can thus consider photographs of motorbikes and other vehicles, footballer shirts, promises of love, thank you notes for a diploma or a driving license, etc. These practices are an invitation to free the notion of vow (pagan and later Christian) from its earlier connotations, to embrace the broader notion of desire.

From this perspective, this subject and associated issues can be approached by defining their boundaries, without neglecting the share of fascination they create. On the one hand, we can focus on the incredible persistence of forms observed by Georges Didi-Huberman[2], who analyzed the similarity of objects (body fragments, feet, hands, breasts) between Celtic votive offerings and 21st century Christian sanctuaries. On the other hand, the need for a history of these forms is all the more urgent that we are dealing with a very plastic phenomenon whose understanding is in perpetual motion: this can be observed in the emergence of the individual portrait, in the promotion of devotional photographs, in Crivelli’s and Philippe de Champaigne’s masterpieces and in the padlocks left by tourists on the Pont des Arts in Paris.

To help with the study of this substantially comparative topic, articulate its diversity and describe its characteristics, we are proposing the following definition for this phenomenon:

“An ex-voto is an object, manufactured (written, painted, cast, etc.) or not (food, live animal, etc.) placed in a specific place of worship, implying a process of transposition, and which substantiates a transaction with a power understood as manifest in this place. It is a combination of a collective practice with an individual’s or a specific community’s action (i.e. the crew of a ship).

This definition is intended to be as general as possible. It does not specify which objects, places or powers are referred to.

Contributions may follow different approaches:

  1. Materiality and temporality. This first approach focuses on the fabrication of ex-votos, which is partly responsible for their efficiency. This process is represented through stories such as miracle narratives, which contain the description of several chains of operation where the manufacturing of the object is (almost) more important than its final location. Each type of fabrication implies a relation with time. On the one hand, the chosen materials can reflect an immediacy of desire and gratification (wax, metal): these are cheaply produced industrial products, which are designed to be destroyed or re-used as ornaments, and disappear with the satiation of the desire or the end of suffering. But they may also be stone or wood artifacts and prestigious paintings, which are meant to last: in this case, the expression of a vow takes on a memorializing function. Between these two ends of this spectrum, ex-votos reflect very diverse perceptions of time.
    These considerations of matter embrace any objects that function as ex-votos, regardless of their original use – such as “ready made” ex-votos (a baby’s swaddling clothes, a bicycle, a lock of hair, a block of raw wax, for instance) that are placed in a “sanctuary”. Studies may therefore also examine the rituals that are directly or indirectly associated with ex-votos (such as votive Mass for instance), along with bodily actions and gestures through which an object’s importance is transformed and activated.
  1. Spatiality and visibility. This approach considers the integration of ex-votos within specific mechanisms, and the question of their visibility. Ex-votos represent, when displayed, the suffering or desire of an individual or a collective entity within a collective space: people do not make ex-votos for themselves, or hide them from others. These objects’ spatial contexts need to be analyzed. A study of these mechanisms should also examine places of agency (comparable to places of power): in addition to the obvious necessity of proximity to acting powers (relics, places of cult, altars…), the presence of such objects not only near springs or in forests, but also in tourist spots (bridges, lampposts) in presumably non-religious settings needs also to be addressed.
  2. Relations of power. The mass expression of individual suffering and desires contains a political dimension. These accumulations of objects can consequently be interpreted as the expression of relations of power between different collectives. Contributors may focus on the appropriation of the means of conversing with invisible forces by a number of actors who attempt to keep as much control as possible over the life of these mediating objects. In this perspective, one could consider objects made by those who place them, such as matchstick cathedrals and votive embroideries; or the spontaneous and chaotic character of some of these accumulations, and the “wild” quality of accumulations of objects in places of worship. The unauthorized display of these materials has always been met with resistance: votive sanctuaries are often contested, rearranged and policed by the authorities who seek to control materials and transactions in sacred spaces as in public spaces.
  3. Economics and efficiency. Finally, one could consider the very unique economy and functioning of such objects. One could assume that the more an object “costs”, the more efficient it is. However, the meaning of “cost” remains to be determined in the context of an ex-voto. How can we understand the very singular ways in which value is assigned in these practices? What can be made of the many sanctuaries where the norm is to donate objects of lower value? What relation is there between a vow and a gift, assuming that it is not a mercantile relation? How are the economics of votive offerings different from that of other ritual offerings? Is a votive expense akin to an investment or a sacrifice? How are systems of equivalence calculated, for instance when a gift is made of raw materials or block of wax equivalent in weight to an organ in need of curing? In which circumstances are votive offerings made: before or after the fulfillment of the wish? As payment in advance or as a reward?

Submission guidelines

A summary of 3,000 maximum supported by approximately ten illustrations.

Three potential formats will then be proposed to the author:

  • An article for the online journal for immediate access, of a length of 50,000 characters, which can include any type of illustration (photos, videos, audio). A two-page summary of the article will appear in the printed journal, with the http link to the full online version.
  • An article for the printed version of the journal, of a length of 25,000-30,000 characters (spaces included) supported by a maximum of 10 HD images. Authors are expected to write for non-specialist readers. This requires a good standard of both scientific accuracy and legibility (the journal is targeted at a multidisciplinary humanities readership, and sold in bookstores to a wide audience).
  • An article based on field research and documents where the author works from a specific body of sources, analyzing 15-20 images in under 10,000 characters.

Practical information

Authors should get in touch with this issue’s coordinators, Pierre-Olivier Dittmar, Pierre Antoine Fabre and Thomas Golsenne, through the journal’s sub-editor ( to submit their project (title and summary, draft iconography) with their name, contact details and affiliation, by the 22th December 2017.

Selected contributors will be invited to a meeting at the Mucem in Marseille in February 2018.

Proposals and full articles can be submitted in French or English. The hard copy will be published in French but online papers may be published in English.


  • Submission deadline: 22nd December 2017
  • Selection and feedback: 12th January 2018
  • Contributors meeting at Mucem: 19-20 February 2018
  • Submission of first drafts: 1st May 2018
  • Publication: October 2018

The journal’s editorial guidelines can be downloaded from:

or required from the editorial team: 


The journal Techniques&Culture focuses on the pragmatic, social and symbolic dimensions of technique, ranging from the most “traditional” to the most concrete. Material culture and materiality contribute to revealing and assigning concrete meaning to relations between people, or between people (societies) and their environment. The journal creates and co-publishes theme-based issues that provide an overview of the latest developments on major anthropological questions, targeting both scholars (rank A journal) and the public at large (available online and in bookstores).

[1] Ex votos das Àmericas ( An exhibition organised by the Bard Graduate College, Agents of Faith: Material, Place, Memory will be held this autumn in New York, it was prefigured by the publication of Ittai Weinryb (dir.) 2015, Ex-voto : Votive Giving across cultures. Chigago : Chicago Press.

[2] G. Didi-Huberman 2006, Ex-Voto. Image, organe, temps. Paris : Bayard.

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techniquesetculture (25 octobre 2017). Call for paper: Materializing desires. Le carnet de Techniques & Culture. Consulté le 19 juillet 2024 à l’adresse

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