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anatomical votive

  • Object type

  • Museum number


  • Description

    Votive phallus; wax; fragmentary (numerous).

  • Date

    • 18thC
  • Production place

  • Findspot

  • Materials

  • Dimensions

    • Length: 2.4 inches
  • Curator's comments

    Jenkins & Sloan 1996 pp238-239
    Comment refers to M.560-64 (part) and Witt.319-20
    St Cosmo's 'big toe'
    Wax ex votos from Isernia, southern Italy

    On 17 July 1781 Sir William Hamilton wrote to Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, notifying him that he had, as he thought, discovered 'the Cult of Priapus in as full vigour, as in the days of the Greeks and Romans, at Isernia in Abruzzo'. He goes on to explain that the cult consisted of an ancient festival in reverence of St Cosmo's 'big toe', a local euphemism for a phallus. It is not known what was meant exactly by this. Perhaps it was a relic of the saint, or another term for the wax models of male genitalia that were sold at the festival for dedication in the shrine.
    Hamilton had got to hear of the 'cult' through an engineer who was supervising the construction of a new road through Isernia. Assuming the cult had its origins in antiquity, Sir William asked the governor of the town to make a search for evidence of an ancient temple hear St Cosmo's shrine. The search was fruitless, but a number of inscriptions were copied in the process, and Hamilton passed on a record of these to the Royal Society. He also sent a copy of the eye-witness report of the festival. This was subsequently published, with Sir William's explanation, by the Society of Dilettanti in a volume that principally consisted of a Discourse on the Worship of Priapus by Hamilton's younger contemporary Richard Payne Knight.
    Sir William explains how an annual fair lasting three days was held at the shrine of SS Cosmo and Damiano. Relics of the saints were exposed and then carried in procession from the cathedral to the shrine: In the city, and at the fair, ex voti of wax, representing the male parts of generation, of various dimensions, some even of the length of a palm, are publicly offered for sale. There are also waxen vows, that represent other parts of the body mixed with them .... The devout distributers of the vows carry a basket full of them in one     hand, and hold a plate in the other to receive the money, crying aloud, 'St Cosmo and Damiano!' If you ask the price of one, the answer is, più ci metti, più meriti: 'The more you give, the more's the merit' ... The Vows are chiefly presented by the female sex, and they are seldom such as represent legs, arms, etc, but more commonly the male parts of regeneration. Hamilton goes on to explain how prayers are said as the votive is handed over. One woman was heard to say 'Blessed St Cosmo, let it be like this'. Other worshippers approach the great altar to receive unction with the oil of St Cosmo, exposing the afflicted part of the body, 'not even excepting that which is most frequently represented by the ex voti'.
    Hamilton had not himself been present at the festival proceedings and, between his first becoming aware of it and the Dilettanti Society's publication, the rites were suppressed by the local Catholic clergy. (Eventually Isernia itself was to be destroyed in an earthquake that struck the area on 26 July 1805.) Sir William did, however, manage to acquire some of the wax ex votos. He deposited five of these in the British Museum when he was in England in 1784, with instructions to the Revd Dr Paul Henry Maty, Keeper of Natural and Artificial Productions, to 'keep hands off of them'. The intentional irony of this remark shows that, although Sir William was in earnest about his claims to have discovered a survival of an ancient cult, and therefore wished to see the ex votos placed alongside his collection of ancient 'Priapi' in the Museum, he nonetheless saw the funny side of it all. Earlier he had signed a letter to Joseph Banks with the wish that his 'big toe' may never fail him.
    No contemporary record in the Museum has been found of Sir William's gift, but a register compiled in the second part of the nineteenth century does include it. This document lists erotic objects principally in the collection of George Witt, presented to the Museum in 1865, but also in other collections, Sir William's included. It is noted that two, M.562 and M.563, were broken.
    Subsequently, it seems, all five of these unusually fragile objects were reduced to fragments. Their original appearance can, however be seen in the engraving that formed the frontispiece to the Dilettanti Society's publication.
    Sir William, it seems, was not the only collector to acquire examples of St Cosmo's 'big toe'. The Witt collection itself contains two (Witt.319-20) which are carefully preserved by virtue of the case made especially for them. These are identical with pieces in the engraving and show that more than one cast was struck from the master mould taken from any one member.

    LITERATURE: British Library, Add. MS 34,048, ff. 12-14, Hamilton to Banks, letter dated 17 July 1781; Add. MS 34,048, f.17, letter dated 7 June 1784; Hamilton's account in a letter dated 30 December 1781 is published in Payne Knight, pp. 3-8 of the reprinted edition (ed. Garrison); Johns, p. 25, fig.11 (the Witt Collection pieces are illustrated here); Funnell, pp. 50-51; Carabelli (1996).See also: Davis, W (2008), 'Wax tokens of libido: William Hamilton, Richard Payne Knight, and the phalli of Isernia' in Panzanelli (ed.) Ephemeral Bodies: Wax Sculpture and the Human Figure (Getty Research Institute: Los Angeles)


  • Bibliography

    • Johns 1982 bibliographic details
    • Jenkins & Sloan 1996 142 bibliographic details
  • Location

    Not on display

  • Subjects

  • Acquisition name

  • Department

    Britain, Europe and Prehistory

  • Registration number



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