Si Quaeris Miracula

Si quaeris miracula / If Thou Seekest Miracles

fra Giuliano da Spira (died in 1232) in honor of St. Anthony of Padua.

Si quaeris miracula,
Mors, error calamitas,
Daemon, lepra fugiunt,
Aegri surgunt sani.

If, then, thou seekest miracles,
Death, error, all calamities,
The leprosy and demons flee,
The sick, by him made whole, arise.

Ant: Cedunt mare, vincula:
Membra resque, perditas
Petunt et accipiunt,
Iuvenes et cani.

Ant: The sea withdraws and fetters break,
And withered limbs he doth restore,
While treasures lost are found again,
When young or old his help implore.

Pereunt pericula,
Cessat et necessitas:
Narrent hi, qui sentiunt,
Dicant Paduani.

All dangers vanish from our path,
Our direst needs do quickly flee:
Let those who know repeat the theme,
Let Paduans praise St. Anthony.

Ant: Cedunt mare, vincula...

Ant: The sea withdraws...

Gloria Patri et Filio
et Spiritui Sancto.

To the Father,
Son let glory be,
And Holy Ghost eternally.

Ant: Cedunt mare, vincula...

Ant: The sea withdraws...

V. Ora pro nobis, beate Antoni,
R. Ut digni efficiamur promissionibus Christi.

V. Pray for us, O Blessed Anthony,
R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

I chose Si Quaeris Miracula, a prayer attributed to fra’ Giuliano da Spira, who composed it in honor of St. Anthony of Padua, as a link between my collection of ex votos and my collection of immaginette. Each ex voto displayed here can be looked at as a visual confirmation of this prayer’s promises, a testimonial to its power and effect.

But in so far as the immaginette, through the prayers on their tergo, instruct the faithful on how to invoke a Saint’s intercession, how to ask for a particular miracle, they can be thought of as preceding, as a devotional act, in fact guiding, the supplicant’s request of divine intervention, the promise of public thanks, and the posting of the ex voto on the wall of a given sanctuary as a record of the fulfilled promise as well as a public proclamation of the particular Saint’s power.

And there is another visual link worth mentioning. The image the Saint to whom the ex voto is dedicated, which is (usually) situated at the top of ex votos, stands as a replica (rough or refined according to the skill of the ex voto painter) of the image of that Saint on the front of the immaginette that circulate to inspire and spread devotion to that particular Saint.


Some comments on the structuring of my Immaginette Collection

I value my collection of immaginette less for their artifactual singularity, their rarity, their collector’s value, than for the stories they evoke and capture. (For collections of rare immaginette, check the links provided at the end of “The Culture of Immaginette” / “Il Culto Delle Immaginette.”) In my brand of collecting, and this is true of other objects I collect, the personal stories that originated and are captured by the collection, are the actual collectors, the agents that reclaim and link together otherwise lost times and spaces. Ultimately, for me, the drive to collect, what it does, what it achieves, and how, is more valuable than the exceptional value of the collected items.

Some of the stories this collection recalls are personal, and as such not evident to others: The story of my young self mesmerized by my Aunt’s daily prayer rituals. The story of my young self taught to read and to interpret the lessons of the immaginette’s prayers with the aid of the images assigned to them. The story of a much older self, pulled again under the spell of immaginette and assessing, now from a scholarly perspective, the instructional force of these seemingly simple devotional objects, and their potential relevance as documents of religious and linguistic literacy. The story of Romano surprising me, not so long ago, with the gift of an album of immaginette purchased from a collector in Italy, a gift intended to acknowledge and to sustain my recent scholarly interest in the subject.

Such are some of the cherished stories, the connective threads, which hold my personal, private collection together. But having decided to make my collection public, I want to suggest possible themes that, running through the basic categories I designed as a way of arranging the materials on the screen, may trigger for others additional stories, may provide meaningful, interesting, and instructive connective, and corrective, threads through what might otherwise remain a bland assemblage of images.

Some of the themes are self-explanatory: “The Story of Mary,” from her birth to her ascension; Baby Jesus,” a charming series of images of Jesus as a chubby baby, and as an adolescent, and “Jesus,” a collection of somber and haunting images of him as a young man tending to his flock, and fulfilling his destiny, from temptation and martyrdom, to death and resurrection. “The Many Faces and Attributes of Mary,” not accidentally the richest and most varied of the themes in the collection, since in spite of her being hierarchically positioned below the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Mary is, for most Catholics, the most beloved, and trusted, and comforting figure of their religion. Visual art, both high brow, and as in this case, low brow, has through the centuries acknowledged and celebrated her appeal. High brow visual art, and low brow visual art (but consider, as an exception,  the vernacular representations of Mary’s and Baby Jesus’s features in the immaginette of Madonne Ritrovate I have gathered) have predominantly portrayed and propagated images of Mary and Jesus with light skin and hair, as the collection gifted to me demonstrates.  (I hope to enlarge this collection to include additional immaginette recording more historically accurate, and more ethnic-looking, representations of Mary and Jesus, and I hope perusers of this site might choose to contribute to this goal.) And so, here is Mary, in this collection, tenderly cuddling her baby and, as a foreboding sign of their separation to come, and affirmation of her meek subjection to divine will, presenting him to the faithful, gifting him, giving him up to them for their salvation. But here she is also as the hauntingly human Sorrowful Mother, mourning her son, and perhaps her destiny, her heart pierced by the seven swords that represent the seven sorrows she was elected to bear (“The Seven Sorrows of Mary”). And then there are the themes of  “The Holy Family,” the “Holy Spirit,” the “Guardian Angel,” “First Communion,” the “Trinity,” and “Purgatory.” Seemingly transparent, and straightforward, these themes may nevertheless evoke  complex counter personal memories and responses from viewers of this site.

The remaining themes are less self-explanatory. Within the theme of “The Many Faces and Attributes of Mary,” two sub-themes emerge and within them surface unexpected stories of devotion to her. Immaginette of “Madonne Ritrovate” (Recovered Madonnas), reproductions of icons, paintings, and statues of Mary brought by Byzantine monks from the Orient to Southern Italy to save them from iconoclastic destruction. Carefully hidden by them underground, in caves in wells, they were centuries later “miraculously recovered” by humble people chosen by Mary to tell her story and spread her devotion; and Immaginette of “Madonne Coronate” (Crowned Madonnas), reproductions of paintings or statues representing Mary with a precious crown on her head. Coronation of the Virgin Mary’s effigies, reserved for those images of Mary reputed to have miraculous powers, is a form of reverence instituted by the Council of Nicea (787). (For more images of “Madonne Coronate,” and for “Curious Titles of Mary,” check

Additional less self-evident themes I see emerging from my collection are “Didactic Immaginette,” “Thaumaturgical Immaginette,” and “Epistolary Immaginette.”

“Didactic Immaginette”: As a subtle means of instruction, all immaginette are “didactic” in so far as, through the image of the saint on their recto, the prayer on their tergo, and the reciprocal illuminating function of the two, they teach a particular devotion to and ways of addressing the divine. But the ones I here categorize as “didactic immaginette” perform their function predominantly through the image which, as a lesson in visual imitatio, can function independently of the words appended to it. The caption, “Mary, Our Guide to Heaven” (image #8), for example, is not absolutely necessary for us to interpret the image as her invitation to us to share in the bearing of her son’s cross to ascend to Heaven. In image #5, the invocation “Saint Virgin, help my soul to extinguish Jesus’ thirst for love” complements but is not essential to respond to the sophisticated iconological dimensions of the visual lesson it offers. When we thirst for love, when we need love, we too, her other children, can rely on her. For me, the most intriguing didactic immaginette, are the ones instructing, through over dramatized theatrical postures, the enactment of a specific virtue: compassion, penance, repentance, faith. Although these black and white images signal a highly sophisticated technical production, and hence appeal, per class and culture, to a highly literate audience, their visual force can override class, culture, and levels of literacy reaching out to an originally unenvisioned audience. A commentary on the power of images to educate the unlettered (think Biblia Pauperum).

“Thaumaturgical Immaginette”: Collector Pierluigi Stradella confirms the existence of edible immaginette, a tradition I mention in “Holy Cards / Immaginette: the Extraordinary Literacy of Vernacular Religion.” Stradella writes (personal email) that until recently, mid-1900s, faith in the healing powers of immaginette had occasioned the production of blessed images printed with comestible ink on stamp size pieces of onion skin or wafer paste paper. When medical intervention failed, was not trusted, or could not be paid for, it was believed that praying to the saint figured on an edible immaginetta and ingesting a small piece of it could grant the petitioner the grace asked for. Biagio Gamba, collector and scholar of the culture of immaginette, and the source of Stradella’s information,  provides on his website a learned and fascinating coverage of what he names edible talismans, praying instruments half way between faith and superstition (  What I call thaumaturgical immaginette, however, are neither edible nor superstitious objects. They are Church sanctioned religious artifacts, comforting and reassuring instruments of faith which teach the faithful how to ask for divine intercession. They usually contain a relic, a minuscule piece of cloth that has touched remnants of the Holy Cross, the garment, or the body of a saint whose miraculous powers they proclaim and whose devotion they help propagate. They fulfill the supplicant’s yearning to materially grasp and hold the divine.

And then there are the “Epistolary Immaginette.”  In my collection, most of the immaginette I so name (collector Mario Tasca would call them “Santini Personalizzati/Personalized Immaginette) are those gifted to an Ida Torossi, who has just celebrated her first Communion (see image # 23, recto and verso), by young and older  friends (I venture to assume the age differential on the basis of the handwriting), relatives, nuns and priests. These mini epistles, at times consisting just of a signature, at times a phrase written in the margins of the immaginetta’s prayer, at times a longer phrase penned on its blank back, hark back to and remind us of a past gone by, of a close-knit religious world and educational context (in this case a specific religious academy, “Collegio della B.V. Maria delle Dame Inglesi”) where saints’ days and liturgical celebrations were occasions for friends and relatives to connect and refuel their relationships. More overtly than other kinds of immaginette, “epistolary immaginette” stand as interesting sites where to investigate and complicate theories of literacy. Two posts on Biagio Gamba’s website, “I messaggi dei nostri soldati sui santini,” a brief missive from a soldier (WW I) to his bride, and “Amore sacro e amore profano,” an encrypted (but decoded by Gamba) love letter from a young girl to a nun, foster additional reflections on the uses of immaginette. But there is another kind of immaginetta I would also name “epistolary”: in this case the addresser is a supplicant, the addressee is the divine, and the epistle is the prayer on the verso of an immaginetta which has been redacted by the supplicant through the insertion of the name of the person he/she is praying for, or even by editing the prayer’s text, when the prayer does not quite convey that supplicant’s intention. They are not typical collector’s items. Usually stored in breviaries, wallets, pockets, or nightstand drawers, marked by fingerprints and frayed margins, they are family treasures, fragile archives of poignant implorations. I have several, spanning three generations. And so do, I am sure, many visitors of this site . . .  

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