Acts of Faith: an A to Z of lucky escapes

29 January 2015

In our Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition exhibition we invited you to contribute to the gallery in different ways, from submitting Instagram photos to marking your height on the wall. For the letter “A” we asked you to tell us about your Acts of Faith which were subsequently illustrated and put on display. Robert Bidder, the illustrator, tells us the about the submissions and how he approached drawing them.

Henry Wellcome was interested in many approaches to healing, including scientific and faith-based healing techniques. One of the many groups of things he collected around faith were votive paintings (also known as retablos or ex-votos) from various Christian traditions around the world.

A votive painting is essentially one that gives thanks for a recovery from a near-fatal accident or illness. During an illness a person may pray to a Saint, Christ or God to help them get better and in return they will commission a votive painting. The paintings are then put in churches; sometimes a few of them end up in the collections of famous pharmaceutical magnates.

 Votive painting.
[object Object]

Votive painting.

For the exhibition An Idosyncratic A-Z of the Human Condition, curator Daniel Olson wanted to gather some examples of our visitors’ near death experiences and asked me to paint some of their stories in a votive style.

 Rob's votive paintings on display in the A to Z exhibition.
[object Object]

Rob’s votive paintings on display in the A to Z exhibition.

I was astounded by how many responses we had and how different they were in tone. They ranged from very moving, confessional stories about a dark time in a person’s life, to hilarious slapstick calamities. There was a high number of road accidents, underwater-based accidents, accidents on mountains and quite a few cases of being attacked by animals and other humans.

I included a diverse sample of the different experiences people had and tried to approach them sensitively. The thing I found most difficult to work out was whether to include some form of symbol for any kind of thankfulness that the visitor had voiced. Traditional votive paintings always feature a cosmic figure of some kind: Christ, the Virgin Mary or Saint Francis are frequently represented, usually in the top corner of the painting.

In some of our submissions the writer told their story, but had no statement of thankfulness. Many submissions did give explicit thanks but it was not clear who or what they were thanking. Sometimes an expression of thanks would be given to God or the Universe, but I found it difficult to fathom depicting these abstract concepts let alone trying to set aside any preconceptions of what this person’s theological (or not) beliefs may be.

I decided to exclude the figure of thanks altogether. The only time I changed my mind on this was when someone explicitly thanked the NHS for saving their life. This is something I felt comfortable with enshrining in a cloud.

Robert Bidder is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection. His work also featured in our #CuriousConversations.