Wax Votive Offerings

Wax Votive Offerings

At Exeter Cathedral in Devon a series of stone screens are used to divide the choir from the aisles at Exeter Cathedral, and in an opening under one of them is the tomb of Bishop Edmund Lacey bishop of Exeter from 1420-1455.  In May of 1942 Exeter Cathedral was damaged in an air raid.  In September of the following year, repair work was being undertaken on the screens, which had been affected and in the course of that work quite an astonishing discovery was made.  On the top of the screen in a void directly above Lacey’s tomb, were pieces of glass, oyster shells, splinters of stone and over a thousand curious wax objects.   

Wax Votive Offerings

A curious hidden hoard

The finds were the subject of an article by U. M. Radford, published in the Antiquaries Journal in 1949. Among the thousand objects were fragments of wax heads of men and women, young and old; there were hands, fingers (some with rings), feet that were shod and unshod, limbs without torsos and torsos without limbs.  There were fragmentary figures of horses, pigs and horned cattle.  Among this collection was a complete image: the figurative form of a young woman eight inches tall.   She was shown dressed in a skirt, with a buttoned-up bodice, and with veiled hair, her hands clasped in prayer.

All these objects are made of richly coloured natural beeswax, varying in hue. They had been cast in moulds, and some of the fragments had loops of string attached to them like a candle wick, as though they were intended to be suspended.

Wax Votive Offerings

What are wax votive offerings?

So what are these objects?  They appear to be a unique survival in England of what are termed ‘ex-voto’ or ‘votive offerings’, and if the style of dress of the surviving figure is any indication, they date from the very end of the Middle Ages.

Wax Votive Offerings

How were such offerings used?

A window in York Minster gives a good sense of what votive offerings were and how they were used.  The window in question, the St William window, dates from the 1420s and depicts the hagiography of Archbishop William Fitzherbert – ‘St William of York’ who was canonised in 1227.   The window close to the shrine of St William was installed to reinforce the story of his cult and remind those visiting of the value of their devotion.  There are many images of people visiting William’s shrine and receiving miraculous cures.  In the panel shown above, a man who has prayed at St William’s shrine and has been cured of a leg complaint is shown offering to the shrine a full-size wax replica of his leg – in gratitude for his cure.  This is an ex-voto, and on a rail beside the shrine, other ex-voto offerings are shown left behind by those cured through their intercession to the saint: there is a female head, a leg, a hand and a heart.  These are all coloured yellow with silver stain, perhaps to suggest they are made of yellow wax, like the hoard of these objects at Exeter.

Wax Votive Offerings

Is there any evidence elsewhere of the use of wax votive offerings?

As well as the wonderful visual source this window provides, plenty of documentary sources from elsewhere refer to the practice of leaving ex-voto offerings at the shrines of the saints.  Over two thousand images in silver and wax were hung over the shrine of Thomas Cantilupe in Hereford Cathedral.  Gerald of Wales refers to the story of a knight called Milo, who developed an infection in his arm and was expected to die.  He prayed to St Hugh of Lincoln, and a cure was affected, and on visiting the saint’s shrine in Lincoln Cathedral, he deposited an accurate wax model of his arm as a thank offering.

Wax Votive Offerings

Why were the offerings on top of the screen?

Exeter Cathedral had no shrine to a saint in the late Middle Ages. Still, the discovery of the hoard at Exeter indicates some significant cultic activity focused on a tomb in the cathedral.  As Radford makes clear in her article of 1949, there is only one tomb in the cathedral at the end of the Middle Ages that was the focus of any cultic activity, and that was the tomb of Bishop Edmund Lacey himself.  Lacey had a reputation for holiness in his life, and by the early 16th century, his tomb had become a focus of significant devotion, particularly for those seeking healing, and it was said that ‘many miracles were devised, to be done at his tomb’.  His tomb was a target during the Henrician reform of the cult of saints, and when Leland visited in 1543, the tomb had been defaced by Dean Heynes.  It is very tempting to suggest that these little ‘ex voto’ figures once hung around Bishop Lacey’s tomb, a token of people’s devotion to him. 

Wax Votive Offerings

References and sources

Note 1. U. M. Radford, ‘The Wax Images Found in Exeter Cathedral’ in Antiquaries Journal 29, issues 3-4, pp. 164 and 168.   The black and white images are taken from this article.

Note 2. J. Crook, English Medieval Shrines (Woodbridge, 2011), p. 22.

The colour images of the pieces can be found here: https://www.exeter-cathedral.org.uk/history-heritage/cathedral-treasures/medieval-wax-votive-offerings/

4 thoughts on “Wax votive offerings”

  1. Pingback: The wax votive offerings found at Exeter Cathedral…. | murreyandblue

  2. This is still a common practice today in Catholicism. The practice is to create an image following the answering of a prayer but more specifically, a promise. The person asks for a saint intercession in a prayer and makes a promise to do a pilgrimage and/or leave an image or object as a token of gratitude in a church or sanctuary if the request is granted. Normally, if it’s a cure, the person leaves an image of the cured organ – head, arm, leg, etc. The image traditionally is made out of wax, but today it can be made out of plastic, clay, wood or any other material.
    It’s very common in Catholic countries. The ex-votos are placed in rooms at churches or sanctuaries that are called “rooms of miracles” and are normally open for visit.
    Here is a link for a project in Brazil that is researching and documenting the practice of ex-votos. Unfortunately it’s in Portuguese only.


  3. Pingback: Book reviews: magick, mysticism and missing legs | Yeah nah.

Leave a Comment

Shopping Basket
Scroll to Top