Faith, hope and transformation in the scientific age

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Media captionAntonia Bruce, exhibition curator, talks about the exhibition

The first of March 1932 seemed like any other working day for the miners of La Paz in Mexico. They donned their helmets, picked up their shovels and descended the shaft ready to dig.

But on this day disaster struck; the roof fell in burying Espiridon Suniga and Juan Martines.

Fearing the worst their fellow miners desperately dug away at the debris, but when they reached the men Juan Martines was already dead.

Seriously injured, seeing his deceased colleague lying by his side, Espiridon Suniga feared his fate would be the same and he fervently prayed to St Francis of Assisi to save his life.

In 2008 the life of Cristobel Munoz also hung in the balance. Born six weeks early, underdeveloped and weighing less than 3lbs, his parents feared their son would not survive.

Like the miner, 70 years before him, Cristobel's father, Martinez Munoz, fell back on his faith. And like Espiridon Suniga, his prayers were answered and his son survived.

What connects these two tales of life and death across the decades is a rich Mexican Catholic tradition.

Having received divine intervention both Espiridon Suniga and Martinez Munoz repaid the debt by commissioning a retablo, or votive painting - small, colourful depictions of their moments of crisis - to celebrate the saintly intervention and give thanks for that help.

Theological currency

Along with 100 other votives dating as far back as the 18th Century, the paintings commissioned by Mr Munoz and Mr Suniga will be on display until February in Infinitas Gracias, the first major display of this divine art tradition outside of Mexico.

Image caption Maria Ysabel Losano gives thanks for the return of her goats

Every imaginable human drama is depicted in these images and the unique art form spans social divides and geographical boundaries, but what is common to them all is the sense of a pact being honoured.

"There is a definite contractual element," admits Antonia Bruce, co-curator of the exhibition. "Deliver my needs and I will repay you with a painting."

But these pictures are more than theological currency, she argues; their existence and the bargain made beforehand is a psychological coping mechanism for when circumstances have slipped out of your control.

"I think it's interesting what happens in your mind during a crisis, at that moment before the rationale comes in," says Antonia Bruce.

"When the doctor takes control of the situation you are left out of control and that is when you open the dialogue with the saint who is there for you as much as for your loved one. It's like a placebo - what you believe in can help you stay strong."

Soap opera

But these A4-sized painted tin tiles are not just an expression of deep faith, they offer a unique window into a range of intensely personal moments in people's lives.

From domestic violence to gun fights to motor accidents to lost livestock; sometimes tragic, frequently comic, all human drama is here.

"There's a bit of the soap opera," Ms Bruce concedes. "The paintings show the events of every day lives which we are all fascinated by. Some are simple, some are extraordinary comic book tales. It's a very lively show."

Capital curios

If the votives are the 'thank you' of this exhibition, then the second half represents the 'please'. Charmed Life features around 400 amulets selected from the 1,400 strong Lovett collection, that is held within the Wellcome Collection.

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Media captionExhibition curator, Felicity Powell, describes Charmed Life

Edward Lovett lived and worked in London at the start of the 20th Century. City banker by day, obsessive folklorist by night, he would scour the capital's streets buying curios and good luck tokens from dockers, sailors and soldiers.

Lovett was fascinated by superstition in London's working classes and amassed a richly diverse archive of these talismans over his half century of collecting.

It offers a revealing insight into everyone's need for reassurance, says the exhibition's curator, artist Felicity Powell.

"I think the appeal of amulets crosses cultures and time. Whether or not you are superstitious it's a very human thing to respond to an object that makes you feel good and invest it with meaning, especially one that is portable, that you can take with you."

Edward Lovett's collection is spectacularly diverse, ranging from talismans fashioned specifically to be lucky charms such as miniature wooden shoes and glass sea-horses, to common-or-garden items that were imbued with a very personal significance by their owners.

"The things that look like everyday objects are very powerful in themselves," says Felicity Powell. "You wonder what the life of that person was like, what they invested in these often very humble items."

Sense of transformation

"I think there is a sense of transformation in the objects," added Felicity Powell, "or at least a sense of hope these objects will bring about a change from one situation to another or to reverse something."

Image caption One of Felicity Powell's transformative figures

As is seen amongst the Mexican Votives, a common focus of this desire for change is health.

From sharks' teeth to ward off toothache to peony seeds for epilepsy, cramps and sudden incapacity, or a double acorn to cure diarrhoea, the desire for a back-up plan at a time when modern medicine was in its infancy is very evident.

Powell's own work is on display alongside the amulets. Consisting of wax reliefs of figures in a state of transition, she is carrying on the theme of metamorphosis evident in Lovett's charms.

Even in more superstitious times a century ago Lovett encountered a reticence to admitting possession of such trinkets. Felicity Powell believes we are no less abashed and no less susceptible nowadays.

"I think in a funny way people are still interested in amulets now even if they don't admit it," she said.

"I don't think even in this very scientific age that we will shake off this attachment to objects or the potential of objects to charm us and to be very important to us.

"It's just the way objects embody all the things we feel, and build up a history that we can carry with us."

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