Votive Offerings

A votive offering is a sign of personal thanksgiving, vow or supplication, offered in a place of prayer – the Shrine of Divine Mercy.

Shrine of Divine Mercy in Vilnius

Votive offerings are a way of giving thanks for God’s grace, love, and closeness. The stories have a visible sign and testify that Heaven is open here, and that old tradition is still alive: telling the world about the graces experienced by placing a votive offering.

As one is praying by the picture of the Merciful Jesus, the gaze inadvertently deviates into two pillars rising as if into the sky, the metrics of gratitude studded with votive offerings. These stories, which are often silent but have a visible sign, testify to us that Heaven is open and that the tradition of talking about the graces experienced in this way is still alive.

In Lithuanian churches, especially the older ones, it is often possible to see votive offerings hung next to some altar paintings or sculptures – silver hearts, hands, legs, plates with inscriptions or other figures. In the history of the Church, votive offerings have been known since the days of early Christianity. The Latin word “votum” means a wish, a gift, a promise, and in many European countries they are still called in Latin – “ex voto” (according to the promise given). Often in the face of difficulties, illnesses, or calamities, a person sincerely prayed for something to be heard, promised to sacrifice himself to God, to perform a pilgrimage, to help the poor (or others), but also to hang a visible sign of the prayer in the church. This is a serious commitment that is important to implement. Votive offerings could have funded churches and sometimes they were donated paintings. The Church of Saint Peter and Paul is just an example of such thanksgiving to God. But most often, votive offerings are modest, small signs of remembrance of the graces received, humbly sacrificed to God and hung next to the image through which heavenly help was experienced or requested in prayer. Votive offerings appeared in Lithuania probably together with the first churches, but the oldest “votum” did not survive, as they were mostly made of wax, which was later used for candles. The offerings could be painted on small wooden plaques. Sometimes the entire altar or the walls of the chapel were adorned in picturesque scenes of miracles experienced.

Later, votive offerings made of precious metals, usually in the form of silver parts of the human body, became popular and were sacrificed in gratitude for miraculous healing, or asking for help in the event of illness or disaster. All the graces experienced and the connection of unceasing love that connects man with God are symbolically expressed by the heart shape – the most popular and perhaps the most capacious votive offering. The 17th – 18th century also popularized the decoration of sacred paintings or statues with various precious ornaments, necklaces, brooches, crosses, or roses. This is how the images of Mother Mary were decorated in Trakai, Vilnius, St. Michael’s Church, Gates of Dawn, and Šiluva. Not surprisingly, the sacrifice of people giving such offerings became especially common in the face of adversity in society, especially during the wars, when the only hope remaining for salvation was devotion to God’s grace. In previous centuries, when a large number of votive offerings had accumulated, they were often melted into picture fittings, altar crosses or other liturgical vessels made of the obtained metal. This is one of the reasons why relatively few of the oldest votive offerings have survived to the present day. Most of them currently hanging in churches were created in the 19th century or in the beginning of 20th century. Although the sacrifice of the votive offering is a sign of a very intimate human relationship with God, by hanging in the church it becomes not only an important testimony, but also a bond that is created with the help of God’s graces. Confession, testimony, and worship of miracles have long been considered an important form of gratitude for the graces experienced. To this day, the Book of Miracles written next to some of the miraculous paintings have survived.

The tradition of votive offerings in various countries of Catholic culture, as well as in Lithuania, although not as popular as in previous centuries, has survived to this day. The abundance of votive offerings on the pillars next to the image of the Merciful Jesus testifies His promise to give various graces to those who will pray with confidence in front of this image. People not only give thanks for the graces they received, the healings they experienced, but sometimes respond to the call to simply give thanks for God’s accompanying intimacy and to ask for God’s blessing in the future on various occasions. Those who decide to hang a votive offering buy it at a religious goods store or order it from a jeweller. Some even donate their precious jewellery and decide with the jeweller what shape the votive offering should take to best reflect that sensitive, elusive gratitude of the heart that is so strongly surpassed by the graces experienced. The cult of the image of the Divine Mercy has already gone far beyond the borders of Lithuania and Poland, but also of Europe. Believers of different nations and different destinies are united at this altar by beams of grace of the Lord’s mercy.