Letter to an exquisite collection of Cœurs de Marie
Collection of heart-shaped ex-votos (Switzerland and South Germany, 19th century) on base and under glass globe
Mesdames, Mesdemoiselles, Messieurs,
In French, Latin roots oblige, ‘heart’ is a masculine noun. But in this recently purchased, charming arrangement under glass globe, I see personalities that are as much female as male. Not to mention strong. A trait, you will say, that is essential to standing the test of time and vicissitudes of life without losing any of the charm and simplicity of small objects once so popular.
I know nothing of the hand that assembled you under this ancient globe but that it must be contemporary. I would like to thank it nonetheless, for it was love at first sight. It immediately conjured up the rich and glorious era that was the 19th century... I envisioned beautiful ladies in muslin skirts, leg-of-mutton sleeves and not very becoming pre-Napoleon III bonnets: Flaubert’s provincial France immortalized by Emma Bovary, dragging her melancholy and porcelain complexion across rural Normandy peppered with steeples and oratories, barely recovered from the anticlerical turmoil of the Revolution. Or more likely, if I believe your origin and the very regionalist style of some of you, the intensely Catholic campaigns of the same period of the cantons of Fribourg and Lucerne. And even Bavaria and Tyrol. Small, humble, and charming ex-votos so pervasive since the 1830s in the wake of a cult dedicated to the ‘Most Holy Heart of Mary’ throughout Catholic Europe: you are often called, quite simply, ‘Sacred hearts’. This is the name given to most of you, squeezed together into a pretty little group of charming parishioners on their blackened wooden base. But the gentlemen among you are from an older devotion, namely the Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and most likely date back to the 18th century. The heart... that organ that symbolizes so many emotions. The seat of the soul of the ancient Egyptians. The vital breath at the heart of so many cultures and creeds. And here you are, my adorable little flock of heart-shaped ex-votos in gilded or silvered metal, in brass, incised or encrusted with crystals, often hollow to insert a note, a prayer, the name of people we recommend to Mary. Grouped wisely under your glass cupola, like those bridal bouquets in orange blossoms that once adorned the mantlepieces of bourgeois hearths.
Charming little ex-voto hearts, beautiful testimonies of popular piety... I leave you to your devotions under this dome and send you, cordially, all my tenderness.