Walk into the big art-packed churches of Rome and Mexico City and you can spot the most valuable image instantly. It’s not the great painting or sculpture described in the Blue Guide. As often as not, it’s the smallish Madonna over there in the corner with a bank of candles burning in front of her and the handwritten notes, photographs and silver medals attached to her cloak. While tourists moon over masterpieces, local churchgoers and visiting pilgrims worship her.

They’re the people who have attached the notes to the Virgin’s cloak, describing their troubles and asking for aid, and the ones who have given her medals thanking her for help received. These add-on items are by no means peripheral to her image. They’re part of it, essential to it, evidence of her charisma. They constitute an art genre of their own — an art of please-and-thank-you — and one that is the subject of a marvelous show called “Agents of Faith: Votive Objects in Time and Place” at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery in Manhattan.

Votive objects — also called ex-votos, from the Latin word for vow — are common to every culture and have a long history. The oldest example in the exhibition, a Minoan bronze ax-head, may date back to 1700 B.C. It’s thought to have come from the cave on the island of Crete where Zeus was born, and where countless such objects would have been left as gifts to the most powerful fate-controlling gods.

Later, in the third century B.C., small clay female figures were buried in northern India, probably to thank the Great Goddess for the earth’s fertility. In 14th-century Italy, the Virgin and Child were, discretely, given gifts too. An X-ray of a magnetic church sculpture of the pair, molded from paint-stiffened canvas, reveals a string of pearls, a rosary and a length of lace concealed inside. And, by contrast, a late 19th- or early 20th-century Nkisi Nkondi, or power figure, from Africa wears evidence of the demand for its spiritual services in full view. Iron nails protruding from its carved wood body represent requests by paying clients to right wrongs and ward off danger.

What, precisely, that danger consisted of, we don’t know, though some votive objects are forthright in telling us. During centuries when physical health was chancy and medical remedies few, ritual efforts to manage injury and disease were almost universal. Among votive objects, sculptural images of body parts abound: mangled hands, wounded legs, failing eyes, aching teeth, lungs, breasts, a uterus, a scrotum.

And certain images are widely dispersed over time and geography. From Italy in the third century B.C. comes a realistically painted terra-cotta sculpture of a detached foot, probably a gratitude gift, left at a shrine for a healing. Very similar foot votives were molded from wax in 19th-century Europe, carved from wood in mid-20th-century Brazil, and — in the form of charm-like metal objects called Milagros (miracles) — are still being made in Mexico and Peru.

Less common, but also spanning cultures, are full-body anatomical votives. On loan to the show from the Louvre is an ancient Etruscan sculpture of a youth who, with an impassive stare, lifts his robe to reveal his exposed innards. Almost as startling is a hyper-realistic 19th- century German figure of an infant molded from wax and fitted with glass eyes and real hair. Such doll-like figures — this one was deposited at the church in Upper Franconia — were often made to the precise size and weight of a real baby for whom divine protection was sought.

Protection through the use of votives was a kind of umbrella policy; it covered a lot of ground. It extended to real estate, sources of livelihood and valued possessions, such as farm animals and cars. It included coverage for long-distance travel. Buddhist pilgrims traversing India in the first millennium A.D. carried small clay plaques stamped with religious symbols. Left at holy sites along the way, the plaques served both as proof that the devotees had made the meritorious journey and as tokens of thanks for having made it safely.

Some of the most interesting and moving ex-votos in the show are the least exotic. They respond to the real and potential trauma of everyday life. Among these objects are paintings from Mexico that take the form of detailed narratives annotated with written first-person commentary.

The origins of such work lay in European art traditions introduced by a colonializing Spanish elite to the New World. The earliest example in the show is an 18th-century Mexican picture in which a noblewoman named Josefa Peres Maldonado sits propped up in bed in her elegant home, undergoing surgery for breast tumors as clergy, family and the Virgin Mary look on. Do​ña Peres Maldonado survived her medical crisis and commissioned the picture both as record of her ordeal and a testament to her faith.

But what began as an elite art genre soon drew a popular following and in the process changed format, shrinking in size and exchanging conventional stretched canvas support for cheap sheets of recycled tin. Production of these picture, called retablos, exploded. The show has dozens, from an 1879 image of the Virgin of Guadalupe rescuing shipwrecked sailors to late 20th-century paintings documenting the peril and promise of immigration from Mexico to the United States.

“I give thanks to Holiest Mary of San Juan de los Lagos because I prayed that I might go and come across the border and that I might be hired,” reads the inscription on a retablo dated 1961. Another, from 1990, carries the words: “With the present retablo, I ask Our Lord of the Conquest to permit that they give me my freedom in the United States.”

Paintings like these bring us right up to the American present. Here in el Norte we seem to be increasingly a nation of shrine-builders and votaries, whether we find our pilgrimage goal in Graceland, or in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (also known as the Lynching Memorial) or in the many street altars that sprang up in the immediate wake of 9/11, dense with photographs of the dead and pleas to locate the missing.

And one major American shrine, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, with its healing wall of names, has been a magnet for votive objects since it was built in 1982. The Bard show — organized by Ittai Weinryb, an associate professor at the center, with Marianne Lamonaca and Caroline Hannah, curators at the center’s gallery — begins and ends with material harvested from the memorial. Installed on the first floor, it’s the first thing you see when you enter and the last thing when you leave. And its message is complicated in ways that much of the rest of the show is not.

The installation is a jumble of things, commonplace and arcane: basketballs, whiskey bottles, cigarette packs, Snoopy dolls, military dog tags, C-ration cans, clothing, personal letters, handwritten poems, prosthetic limbs — things that have intimate personal associations with some of the 58,000 soldiers listed on the memorial, and meaning for their surviving families and friends. But where the classic votive shrine is about intervention from a higher power and closure — “Please.” “Thank you.” — this one is not.

The fate of some of the soldiers listed on the memorial is still unknown. The war itself, nearly half a century after its formal end, remains an open psychic wound. The higher powers that this nation respects — money, hierarchy, force — don’t heal that wound, only aggravate it, spread infection. Still, when you walk into that gallery and see the offerings made in a spirit of love and grief and thanks, you know you’re in a place of faith, if not a church.

Agents of Faith: Votive Objects in Time and Place

Through Jan. 6. Bard Graduate Center, 18 West 86th Street, Manhattan; 212-501-3023, bgc.bard.edu.

Holland Cotter is the co-chief art critic. He writes on a wide range of art, old and new, and he has made extended trips to Africa and China. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2009.

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