Miracles & Charms at the Wellcome Collection

Running until 26 February 2012, the Wellcome Collection‘s latest exhibition explores “faith, hope and chance” using two  concurrent exhibitions: Infinitas Gracias, a showcase of Mexican miracle paintings from the late 19th century and early 20th century, and Charmed Life, an exhibition of Edwardian folklorist Edward Lovett’s collection of amulets and charms, as seen through the eyes of artist Felicity Powell.

The atmosphere is fittingly magical, and the exhibition as a whole is a good size: enough to entertain passersby and cater to family outings, with plenty to look at and to provoke thought, but without overwhelming the lay audience – as Wellcome Collection exhibitions can sometimes do.

Infinitas Gracias‘ display of Mexican miracle paintings – a tradition dating back to the 16th century whereby small paintings are made to thank the saints for perceived salvation or small kindnesses – display the everyday ailments and everyday beliefs which, in the words of the curator, “bear witness to a deep-seated faith and a common humanity”. They’re by turns touching, profound, amusing and bizarre. A typical example: “On 2 March 1840, Dona Gertrudis Castenada, having set sail, was caught in a furious storm at se and in such a terrible predicament she invoked the Virgin of Soledad of Santa Cruz and in finding safety she dedicates this retablo.”

In the next room, I liked the panels decorated with brass ‘milagnitos’, c.1940: tiny brass charms left by worshippers at the altar, shaped to represent the ailment or plea. Many of them are limb- or organ-shaped, or request the blessing of a home. Churches, left with hundreds of thousands of these charms, incorporate them into the decorative schemes of their buildings, and the result is beautiful.

Felicity Powell’s Charmed Life: the solace of objects, meanwhile, contains some treasures. A glass-topped cabinet of curios display the best of Lovett’s collection, and its categories demonstrate the breadth of his interests: thunderbolts, nail, tooth and claw, protection against nightmares and against lightning, foodstuff and journey, glass amulets (such as the seahorse shown above), wards against the evil eye, pressed metal votives and shrines, fossils, crosses and phalluses. Collected from predominantly working class areas of London, including a thriving market trade on the banks of the Thames, the collection is fascinating, and its creator equally so.

Individual amulets are singled out: The Lord’s Prayer (shown above), which was written in tiny handwriting onto a piece of paper, shaped to wrap neatly around a coin and taken into battle by a soldier of the Middlesex regiment in 1912. A collection of 9 brass rings from Syria, to be worn together on the thumb, by men, against sore eyes. Girdle tape from Eifel in Germany, printed with red text to spell out a prayer, and worn to relieve the pains of childbirth.

Powell’s responses include a delicate series of small wax drawings, created onto the backs of mirrors, which depict hands casting powerful spells and silhouettes of mysterious characters. A surprisingly hypnotic film in the next room shows how each piece was carefully made – a painstaking and lengthy process.

This is a rewarding and absorbing exhibition, of the quality that visitors to the Wellcome Collection’s free programme are fast becoming used to. It’s carefully curated and offers an opportunity to meditate on the superstitions and faiths of humanity. Above all it gently prods us to consider why we need these props; why we surround ourselves with totems and amulets and charms just to get by. A good programme of free events supports the exhibition – including a Supper Salon exploring ideas of magic and faith, and a night devoted to the appeal of miniaturisation.

Miracles & Charms at the Wellcome Collection