Most Holy Mary Crowned One of the Poor
(Maria Santissima L'Incoronata dei Poveri)
There are at least two versions of the legend of the Crowned Virgin of the Poor. Both are made available in print at the sanctuary.
One recounts that on the last Saturday of April in the year1001, the Count of Ariano Irpino, after a day of hunting, spent the night in a rustic cabin in the woods near the creek Cervaro. At dawn he was suddenly awakened by his servants and fellow hunters urging him to flee with them. The men were terrified by strange flashes of light in the woods, almost like a fire. The Count got up, but though he was also scared, he did not flee with his friends. Instead he was drawn to the strange phenomenon, and cautiously went to the place where the flashes came from. Once he got close, Count Ariano realized with amazement that there were no open flames, but only a strange light. Then he noticed in the midst of it a superhumanly beautiful Lady, shining with heavenly light.(*1)
The other version recounts that the same nobleman on the same hunting excursion was stalking a deer until he found it prostrating itself before a great Oak tree. The tree became luminous as if on fire in the midst of which Our Lady appeared.(*2)
Both accounts agree that Most Holy Mary told the frightened and awed Count: "Do not be afraid, I am the Mother of God." Then, pointing to a big oak, she showed him a statue of a brown Madonna sitting on a throne in the tree. The Mother of God said: "I want you to erect a shrine in my honor in this place, without gold or precious ornaments. I will make it famous through the many graces that the devotees will receive who will honor me here with a sincere and filial heart."
At that moment Count Ariano noticed a farmer, a certain Nicholas, nicknamed Strazzacappa, which means torn cape, a reference to his poverty. The peasant had been on his way to work in the fields with his ox when the animal went to prostrate itself before the apparition in the tree. Thus led by his beast, Strazzacappa came to witness the apparition and the words of the beautiful Lady.
When the splendid Lady and the bright flashes disappeared, the Count and the peasant, filled with divine love, hugged each other. This was unthinkable behavior under normal circumstances, yet at that moment they were united in the same happiness and in the one quest of building a chapel according to their Mother's wishes as soon as possible.
Clearly, the Madonna was sending a message of solidarity with the poor and social equality, first by insisting that her sanctuary be free of gold and precious stones and secondly by binding together in brotherly love a nobleman and a peasant. Hence her title 'Mary of the Poor'.
The 2001 brochure of the sanctuary recounts that once the apparition had disappeared, the two men witnessed not only two (as the other version has it) but scores of angels and saints crowning the enthroned dark Madonna statue. And so the statue remained as the physical presence of the Queen of Heaven. She was crowned "not by a cardinal, bishop or pope as is usual," says the church brochure, but by Heaven itself. (This is a recurring theme in Black Madonna legends. See e.g. Einsiedeln, Switzerland and Le-Puy, France. Feminists love it when the Madonna proves herself independent of patriarchal structures.)
News of the miraculous event spread like wildfire and the faithful came by the thousands from all around to see, to honor, and to pray to their Heavenly Mother. Now the miracles in the woods of the Crowned Madonna began to flow, as she had promised. The peasant had made a makeshift oil lamp from a copper pot (la caldarella, literally 'cauldron') and had hung it on the tree as an offering of light to the Virgin. The Mother of God sanctified this oil. It did not run out for many years even though countless pilgrims anointed themselves with it and obtained physical and spiritual healings. To this day pilgrims bring oil for the Madonna to bless in her cauldron.
Soon a church was built in the place of the apparition at the oak tree which held the statue of Mary among its dense branches. To this day one last piece of the sacred wood (sacra legna) remains in the crypt under the altar.(*3)
The ceaseless rush of the faithful called for someone to take custody and care of the chapel. At first, some hermits volunteered to fill the role. Later the monks of the order of St. Basil moved in and built up the premises in order to accommodate the monks and pilgrims. Unfortunately, for political reasons, the monks were forced to abandon the place in 1140. It was left without care and custody until another religious community was found, who settled there and again expanded the Church and the monastery. This community then merged with the Cistercian order, which took as good care of the sanctuary as it could but didn't have anywhere near enough money to spend on it, especially after a terrible earthquake devastated the area in the 18th century.