Before the year 1522, when Bernardino Lanino painted the first ex-voto donated to the Sanctuary by the Municipality of Biella, there is no evidence of the custom of offering commemorative paintings to seek grace or give thanks to the divinity. The prevailing custom since the 15th century had been to craft images of wax, gold, silver and jewels as a votive donation, which were periodically changed for money to economically support the Sanctuary. In this context a painting is a special donation; although depicting scenes of daily life it can by no means be considered a scanty or overly simplified testimony of religious faith. It is easier to slip a ring from a finger or deprive oneself of a precious object rather than relating to the painter a personal story, often wrecked by a misfortune, in order to be expressed artistically and become publicly ostensible in the form of the votive donation. The ex-voto is not an anonymous donation, as the donor offers his or her personal image and life history as a subject for depiction, displaying the grace received by God to the community.
The ancient votive tablets that are displayed inside the museum, in the Treasure gallery and in the ‘Manica Juvarriana’, were originally hung inside the Chapel and on the walls of the Basilica, in such a number that at the end of the 19th century the walls were literally crammed with them.
Votive paintings are essentially composed of two elements, the circumstance in life requiring the salvific intervention of the divinity and the celestial epiphany consequently intervening. The grace received is often narrated as a human cry for help to the Black Madonna of Oropa, who appears as the saviour bathed in the light of heaven, symbol of transcendence and vehicle of union between the earthly world and the celestial sphere. The artists, often anonymous, display a peculiar sensitivity to realism, which renders the votive paintings not necessarily a work of great artistic value but an important testimony of daily life, of the history of furnishing, costume and domestic devotion. The paintings, dating back to different epochs, include the depiction of war scenes, work injuries, illnesses and road accidents, thus describing the evolution of culture and fashion within society. The photographic portraits section and the section dedicated to the football shirts, donated by national and local athletes as a sign of devotion to the Madonna of Oropa, are of recent acquisition.