A wooden arm

Materials:  roughly carved wood
Dimension:  22cm long
Place acquired:   Pernambuco, N. E. Brazil
Place of manufacture:   as above

This crudely fashioned human arm has a definite presence. Is it a greeting? a salute? a cry for help from a drowning man? It’s none of these things, and even the fact that it can stand on a flat base is probably a complete accident. Maybe it was made from an old chair leg with its machine-cut foot forming, incidentally, the end of the arm. It’s not a piece of art. It’s not supposed to last very long. Whoever buys it will have it in their possession for maybe only a few minutes. It needs to be cheap to buy, suitable for a poor person’s pocket. All it has to do is simply to say,
   ‘My arm is better now, thank you’.
Or possibly,
   ‘My arm has something wrong with it. Please will you make it well?’

It was bought on a roadside stall where lots of other wooden body parts would have been on sale – heads, feet, ears, probably any part you can think of. It’s a votive offering, and this one was bought in the city of Juazeiro do Norte in the north east of Brazil. It is the place where Padre Cicero, a 19th century folk saint lived, worked and died. He is held responsible by local people for many miracles, and it would be to him that the wooden arm was intended to appeal.

The practice of votive offerings involves the purchasing and donating of tokens of gratitude or request for healing through divine intervention. The token usually represents the part of the body that needs healing. It is typically directed at a particular saint or deity and done at the place and time that is most appropriate. It is really a sort of contract. A person prays for divine help and in return promises that they will leave such an offering should the prayer be answered. It’s a widespread practice particularly within Catholic communities and it has a long history dating back at least to pre-christian Roman times. There are several other examples from different parts of the world in this collection.

This example is a pretty basic one, made for poor people. But as in most human affairs votive offering tends to have a sliding scale. Should you be wealthier, or wish to make a statement with a greater flourish, then there will probably be a luxury model.