Graduate Theological Union

Journey and Transformation: An artist walks the Camino

Schaffer on the Camino, field of flowers

“Whatever is ahead, I feel it’s going to be a creative and transforming journey.”
Amanda Schaffer, M.A. Student

In 1993 on a trip to the Santa Maria de Montserrat monastery in Montserrat, Spain, Amanda Schaffer wandered into a roomful of body parts.

Not real body parts, but ex-votos — votive offerings to saints or deities. They have been found in ancient Egypt and Rome and also in the 21st century, given as fulfillment of a vow or in gratitude for a miracle or healing, and placed in churches, chapels, and destinations of pilgrimages. They can take a wide variety of forms, but often are symbols such as a modeled reproduction of a miraculously healed body part.

Schaffer at Cruz del Ferro

 At the Cruz del Ferro

“The memory of that roomful of ex-votos stayed with me,” says Schaffer, an artist who is pursuing her M.A. in Art and Religion and who now casts her own ex-votos in beeswax. “There was energy in that room, where so many ex-votos were being stored: Each one was an object of great importance to someone, and each had a story to tell. When I returned from that trip to Spain, I made a photo album and titled the picture of the ex-voto room ‘A Room of Hope.’”

Since that time, Schaffer nurtured her own hope to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, or The Way of Saint James — a pilgrimage route in Spain that has existed for more than a thousand years. Legend holds that St. James’ remains were carried by boat from Jerusalem to northern Spain where they were buried on the site of what is now the city of Santiago. The walk became one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during medieval times, and today tens of thousands of pilgrims make their way to Santiago.

This past summer, Schaffer walked the Camino with her father in honor of her mother and her mother’s two sisters, all of whom died in 2010. “The Camino had called me for years, and it was like a dream come true, only bittersweet, now that my mom has passed,” she says. “Fifteen years ago she gave me a CD called Santiago, a musical tribute to the pilgrimage route by the Chieftains; it was the first time we had heard of the Camino.”

Shaffer experienced the Camino on various levels. “There is a spiritual plane and an other-worldly presence of those who have walked before on the path. On the Camino you become part of a pilgrim community where everyone helps each other and has a similar goal — to reach the Cathedral in Santiago. There is also the beauty of the Spanish countryside and the graciousness of the Spanish people.”

On a personal as well as an artistic level, Schaffer has an abiding interest in the theme of journey and transformation. During her first semester at the GTU, she cast beeswax anatomical ex-votos to understand the process used by medieval wax craftsmen or wax chandlers.

“There is a spiritual plane and an other-worldly presence of those who have walked before on the path”
Amanda Schaffer

Also, in honor of her Swedish mother and aunts who were together for seven decades, Schaffer made and carried on the Camino seven small ceramic horses in the likeness of traditional Swedish carved and painted wooden Dala horse statuettes. She left six as devotions at various special places along the way. And by what she describes as a kind of a miracle, the authorities in the Cathedral at Santiago allowed Schaffer and her father to leave the seventh Dala right next to the reliquary of Saint James — the final resting place of his bones, and the destination of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims.

Schaffer will return to her GTU studies next spring. In her future she sees herself combining art history and studio practice. And she definitely wants to make more ex-votos. She says, “Whatever is ahead, I feel it’s going to be a creative and transforming journey.”

Read her blog of the Camino journey: