Make an anatomical votive
Art assignment, collaboration

An open educational resource, devised in response to the physical separation of the 2020 lockdown. Make an anatomical votive invited participants to make a connection between feelings, the body and the act of making an object.

Read about the project at The Votives Project, an interdisciplinary project at the Open University.

Listen to the assignment, or see the transcript below. If you decide to make your own and would like to share what you make,  I’d love to include it here on the project page. Please get in touch!

This assignment takes the idea of the ancient anatomical votive as a starting point. So I’m going to start by telling you a bit about these objects – and then we’ll move on the art assignment.

Votive offerings exist in lots of different forms across lots of different cultures. But for this assignment we are drawing on the pre-Christian Greek and Roman tradition of dedicating objects that look like body parts, to the divine.

I should say that the thinking for this assignment came out of reading a recent book called ‘Bodies of Evidence’, edited by Jane Draycott and Emma-Jayne Graham, published in 2017. So for anyone who wants to know more – that’s where to look! The Wellcome Collection also has a great catalogue of images online.

In the ancient world, the anatomical votive was an image, often a small model, of a human body part, offered to the gods. The word ‘votive’ is in fact related to the word ‘vow’. This is because of how this particular kind of ritual activity worked: an individual would go to the temple, to seek direct support from a god or gods – asking for a direct intervention into their lives on a particular problem. They would make their prayer and then vow to present the god with something in return when that prayer was fulfilled. For example, you break your leg, go the shrine to pray ask for it to be healed and vow to return with a gift when it is. After a few months and your leg is better, you take a small sculpture of a leg and leave it as an offering, thereby fulfilling your vow. So there’s this cyclical relationship between the human body, language, the object and the gods.

Huge numbers of these objects have been found by archaeologists at the sites of ancient temples and centres of healing – feet, scalps, genitals, swaddled infants, hair, breasts, eyes, bladders, limbs and lungs. Most likely they were mass produced – lots of the models would have made from casts. Some of them seem to show imagined versions of internal organs and are therefore hard to identify. For example, there is some debate over whether what archaeologists have long described as ‘votive wombs’ – or uteri - are in fact intestines. Some anatomical votives are life-sized and others are not, but lots of them would be a nice size to hold in your hand.

Your assignment is to make your own anatomical votive. The aim is to make a connection between feelings, the body and the act of making an object.

Here’s how:

**Identify something you would like help with**. It it’s a pain, it might be emotional rather than physical, in which case, identify a part of the body that you relate to this pain. You could do this by thinking about where you feel that emotional pain – in your heart or your belly for instance – or it might be that you want to use a body part as a symbol. For example, you wish you could travel, so you make a foot. Of course it’s not possible to know what individual ancient Greeks and Romans meant by their votives, they may well have had symbolic as well as literal meaning – or instead of a literal meaning. You might make a tongue because you are suffering from mouth ulcers, or you might make a tongue because you have a secret you want the courage to tell.

**Make your anatomical votive using whatever materials you have to hand** – either at home or go for a walk while you’re doing your thinking and find a stone to draw on or a piece of bark to work with. Greek and Roman votives would be made out of all sorts of materials. Clay, wax or wood – but also more perishable materials which have not survived – like fabric or foodstuffs. Or they would be drawings inscribed into a tablet. These often have holes in showing that they were designed to be hung up.

How you interpret the brief will be personal. The only rules are that your votive should have some kind of 3D element and, like lots of the Greek and Roman votives, it should fit comfortably in your hand.

I’m going to leave you now to get on with feeling your own way into this.

But first a last word on what happens next in the life of an anatomical votive:

Greek and Roman votives were left at sites of healing, as dedications to the gods. I like the idea of all these many body parts, signifying many different things to many different individuals, accumulating over the years, and forming one massive, composite human body – a body made up of endless fragments and repetitions. At this time of physical separation from each other, I thought we could try to make another such body, by collecting what gets made in response to this art assignment. So, if you’d like to be involved, send us an image of your votive for inclusion on our online ‘site of healing’ and one off artist book. Email You can also use the hashtag #MindsEyeAssignments.