Arpino black madonna loreto.jpg

Madonna of Loreto (copy)

Arpino procession.jpg

At the Benedictine convent Sant’ Andrea most of the year and in the church San Michele Arcangelo on the town plaza from the 3rd Sunday of November till the second Sunday of January.

I don't often include copies of famous Black Madonnas in my index, but this one has such a distinct character and Emilio Giovannone's photos are so good that I couldn't resist.

A copy of the Madonna of Loreto has been venerated in Arpino since the 17th century. Procession to the church of the archangel St. Michael every 3rd Sunday of November. She stays there for her feast day on December 10th and returns to the nunnery on the second Sunday of January. The nuns guard her jealously, because she was given to the convent as the dowry for one of the nuns by her father, at his daughter’s request. The Black Madonna was sculpted in Loreto. The base on which she is carried in procession was ordered by the abbess from sculptor Michele Stolz.

During her festival, the mayor deposits the keys to the city at the foot of the Madonna, as a way of honoring her as the patron saint of the city. Usually a large group of air men pay their respects as well, because, since the Holy House of Loreto is said to have flown on angels’ wings from the Holy Land to Italy, the Black Madonna of Loreto is the patron saint of the Air Force and pilots in general.




Madonna Della Libera (Our Lady of Freedom)

In her church Santa Maria della Libera, life size, 16th century incarnation of an older statue.

For two or three hundred years starting during the 9th or 10th centuries, many pilgrims visited the shrine of the Virgin Mary in Moiano, and there were miracles and cures. Then the sanctuary fell into ruin, perhaps due to the plague, but the memory of a miracle working Black Madonna remained until the church and statue could be rebuilt in the 16th century.

The church speculates that her title goes back to the 16th century. Around 1571 the Turks had invaded Italy and would not let the populace practice Catholicism. In Moiano victory over the Turks was attributed to the many individuals who had prayed to Our Lady of Moiano. Probably for this reason she was henceforth called Santa Maria Della Libera (Our Lady of Liberty.)

St. Padre Pio had a great devotion to this Lady.




The incredibly picturesque Vernazza is the second village along the famous Cinque Terre hiking route in the Region Liguria, Province La Spezia. The Madonna resides in the 11th century Sanctuary of Our Lady of Regio also known as the Sanctuary of the African Madonna, a 30-45minutes hike above Vernazza. Open only Sunday afternoons during mass.

photo: Hilofoz. Black Madonna in the local Belforte castle. Looks like a cheap garden Madonna painted black in recognition of the real Black Madonna in the church of which no photo is available.

The African
The Black Madonna

This “African” Madonna is an important reminder of the racial issues connected with Black Madonnas. (More in the introduction.) Her town was founded around the year 1000 by freed former slaves of the old Roman family ‘Gens Vulnetia’ (from whence the name Vernazza derived). Did they give their former slaves this Black Madonna, which was supposedly brought back from the Holy Land by Crusaders? Or better yet, did the Black Madonna ask for the slaves to be freed? Who knows.

photo:  David

photo: David

The 11th century church, of which only the Romanesque façade remains, was built on top of the crypt of an even older church. A festival dedicated to the African is celebrated on the first Sunday in August.

To get to this church you hike up a steep trail to the North of Vernazza near the graveyard. It is a “way of the cross” with sculpted “stations of the cross” that invite the faithful to stop repeatedly and meditate on the suffering of Christ.

The area around the sanctuary has a spring, picknic grounds, and ancient trees, but no business selling anything. So you have to bring your own provisions.




In the church Santa Maria della salute, across the Canale Grande from Piazza San Marco, Open 7-12 + 3-7, 12th Century? 
photos: Madonna and child with and without adornments

(Greek: Peacemaker)

This Black Madonna is one of the dozens attributed by medieval legends to St. Luke the Evangelist, in my opinion in order to protect them from inconoclasm. Indeed, tradition says Our Lady the Peacemaker had to be saved from iconoclasts in Constantinople and was brought to Candia, the capital of Crete. If that were true she should be older than the 8th or 9th century, yet some date her to around the year 1000, others to the 12th century.

Santa Maria della Salute

Santa Maria della Salute

In any case we know that she spent a few centuries in St. Titus Cathedral in Candia, where she was revered as miracle working by both Greek Byzantine and Latin Catholic Christians. The latter had come with the Venician occupiers. (The city-state of Venice ruled Crete from 1204-1669.) The Black Madonna was charged with keeping the peace between these two fractions, who had battled eachother mercilessly in other parts of the Christian world. Each year Latin and Greek clergy would carry the icon in procession to both Latin-rite and Orthodox churches.
And so all was well until the Turkish Muslims vanquished the Venicians in Crete in 1669. Again the Black Madonna had to flee from people who would have destroyed her and so she was taken to Venice in 1670. There the church Santa Maria della Salute had just been built in order to persuade Heaven to protect the city from the plague. A venerable icon was needed to adorn the main altar. Good timing!




3 km from Piedimonte Etneo, slightly West of Fiumefreddo di Sicilia, County Catania, Sicily, in the church Santuario Maria Santissima di Vena, also called the Sanctuary of the Sacred Fountain, Black Virgin painted in tempura on very ancient table of cedar of Lebanon, believed to date from the first centuries of Christianity. 159 x 59 cm

Maria Santissima della Vena, Most Holy Mary of the Vein

Between 575 and 580 Saint Gregory the Great set out to build a monastery on a terrain around Vena which belonged to his mother, Saint Silvia. Gregory later ended up building five more monasteries in Sicily and becoming Pope. 

On this fine day he hiked with a group of monks and mules carrying everything they would need, tools and a Byzantine icon of the Mother of God. According to the legend, the monks wittnessed a miracle when they stopped to rest a while. The mule which was carrying the icon started to scratch the earth with its hoof and soon a spring gushed forth. The saint took this to be a sign that his monastery should be built here and called the place as well as the Black Madonna Vena, which means vein – as in a vein of water and a vein of grace. Under the icon an inscription reads: "Sancta Maria, Vena omnium Gratiarum ora pro nobis", i.e. Saint Mary, Vein of All Graces, pray for us.

The original monastery was destroyed, but the new church still stands on its ruins.



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In her sanctuary in the small city of Tindari, municipality of Patti, province of Messina, on the North-Eastern shore of Sicily, painted cedar wood. Open 6:45 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 to 7:00 p.m. (8:00 p.m. on feast days and in July/August)

The Black Madonna Santa Maria of Tindari

The breath-taking sanctuary of this Madonna sits on a high bluff overlooking the sea. It was built on the site of a former temple to Cybele, a goddess who was worshipped in those parts since prehistoric times under the titles Mother of the Gods, the Accessible One, Savior who Hears our Prayers. All the guide books of the sanctuary mention this connection to Cybele. Like I say in the introduction, many in the European Catholic Church appreciate their ancient roots in pre-Christian times. The "Tyndaris" guide book recounts the history of the town from its inception in the 5th century B.C. Emphasis is put on how thoroughly the Muslim invaders of the 9th century destroyed the place. Then it says: "Though life had now deserted this promontory, where oblivion reigned supreme over the ruins of a dead town, in this silence the hands of humble friars, collecting the miserable remains of the once so superb temple of Cybele on the splendid acropolis of Tyndaris erected the first small church of Tindari, on its altar the miraculous statue of a "Black Madonna"."(*1)

One story says the brown Madonna was brought to Italy in the 8th century by sailors who had saved her from the iconoclastic controversy in Eastern Christian countries. When they drew near to Tindari a storm forced them to take refuge in its bay. Once the winds calmed, the sailors wanted to continue on their way, but the Madonna wouldn't allow the boat to move until she had been offloaded on the beach. From there the local population entrusted her to the little monastery on the cliffs. It seems she wanted to fill Cybele's throne.

Another story reports Saint Mary of Tindari was found by shepherds in a beach front cave, where she had washed ashore in a casket after a long and tumultuous journey. As if to explain and confirm her dark complexion, a note was with her, quoting the same verse from the Song of Songs (1:5) that accompanies so many Dark Madonnas: "I am black but beautiful, O you daughters of Jerusalem." Now the first half of that quote is inscribed in big Latin letters at the base of the statue. Other Latin inscriptions around her throne call her in great mosaic letters: "Mother of Mercy, life, sweetness" - a quote from the prayer that starts with: "Hail holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, our life, our sweetness, and our hope...."

The 1957 sanctuary seen through 3rd century B.C. ruins. photo: Paul Fornaby

The 1957 sanctuary seen through 3rd century B.C. ruins. photo: Paul Fornaby

The inscription "I am black but beautiful" is significant at a time like ours when so many Black Madonnas are restored to their original whiteness because it is perceived as more beautiful. It seems to say: "Don't mess with my skin color!" To me whitened Dark Mothers are like old women getting a face lift. The Madonna doesn't need a face lift, doesn't need the patina removed. She has darkened for many good reasons. The inscription draws attention to that darkness. Many people don't even register dark statues as "black" because they are used to the natural darkness of old wooden objects and ancient icons due to patina. They look through the statue as through a window into the divine that is beyond shape and color. This is wonderful indeed, but sometimes the statue is like a letter to us from Heaven: the details of the work bear a message to humanity. "Nigra sum sed formosa" also says: "Pay attention to my blackness! Meditate on it!"


An interesting story is told at the Tindari sanctuary that warns people of prejudiced reactions to dark skin: One day a woman came from far away to fulfill a vow to the Madonna of Tindari for saving her little girl's life. When the woman reached the sanctuary, after a long journey and saw that the Madonna's face was that of a black "Ethiopian" she exclaimed in dismay: "I traveled so far to see someone uglier than me?! The sight of a black slave surely was not worth the discomfort of the long journey!" The moment she expressed her irreverence, her little girl, who had wandered away from her mother, fell from a cliff. The woman called upon the Madonna to again save her child's life. But the miracle had already happened - a sand bank had risen from the sea so the girl could fall on soft sand and live. The woman now believed in the divine powers of the Madonna she had mocked. The sandbank, which stretches 1.5 km into the sea and rises to 4m above sea level is still there today. It changes from year to year with the tides and weather, but often one can see in it the shape of a mother and child. (See photos on right) People say this is to remind us of the miracle the Madonna granted the disrespectful mother.(*2)


Like others, this sanctuary too honors its Madonna with a festival on her birthday, September 8th. Masses are celebrated every hour from early morning to midnight, a procession is held, and fireworks conclude the festivities at midnight.

A freely interpreted "copy" of this Black Madonna is venerated in a small Italian immigrant chapel on Fifth Street in Hoboken, New Jersey. Twice a year mass is celebrated there and every five years, on the weekend closest to September 8th, Our Lady is carried through the streets of the city in procession.(*3)

Though Ean Begg counts the Black Madonna of Tindari among one of those attributed to St. Luke, no one else confirms this view.

Tips for the pilgrim: Look for accomodations in Marinello, the town along the sand bank. There are bungalows to rent from and a 2 star Hotel Acquarius or up on the hill near the sanctuary in Antica Tindari there's a beautiful agriturismo.


*1: Giuseppe Tornatore, Tyndaris, Edizioni Tornatore, Messina, p. 50
*2: See: ibid. p. 58 and Mary Beth Moser, Honoring Darkness: Exploring the Power of Black Madonnas in Italy, Dea Madre Publishing, Vashon Island, WA: 2005, pp.70 + 73
*3: Joseph Sciorra, The Black Madonna of East Thirteenth Street, in: Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore, Vol. 30, spring-summer 200


San Severo


In her church in the center of the town of San Severo, province Foggia, region Puglia, around 1564, received a baroque make-over in 1760.

the Madonna of Succor
(Madonna del Soccorso) 
patron of the city and the diocese

In 1564 the order of Augustinian monks brought this Black Madonna to San Severo from Sicily. Nobody knows how old she was at that point. The monks promoted the cult of the Black Madonna, because they had seen how beneficial it was in other parts of Italy, as well as in Spain. They had a special devotion to her ever since the famous Black Madonna of Chipiona, Spain was said to have been sculpted by St. Augustine himself at the command of an angel.

When the Augustinian monastery was dissolved in 1652 the care of the sanctuary was transferred into the hands of a fraternity who has been keeping the devotion to the Madonna of Succor alive ever since.

Taking the place of the ancient Great Earth Mothers, she is considered the protector of fields and crops and holds a bouquet of wheat, grapes, and olives in her right hand. She was invoked and carried around town in procession whenever the crops were endangered by drought, storms, or pests, or when other dangers loomed. E.g. she was credited with maintaining peace when the French Revolution threatened to spill into Italy.

My interpretation of the striking difference between the black mother and the white child is given on the Foggia page. The original baby Jesus was replaced by the present one during the baroque make over in 1760. We don't actually know what color the original Jesus was. I wouldn't doubt that it too was white, since the older Augustinian Black Madonna of Chipiona, after which this one seems modeled, also holds a white Baby Jesus.

This Dark Mother was solemnly crowned in 1937. Like many of Mary's crowns, this one too is topped with a dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit, her spouse.

A great two day festival, the Festa del Soccorso, is held each 3rd Sunday and the following Monday in May in honor of this Black Madonna and the other two patron saints of the city. There are processions and festive masses. The Madonna is elaborately decorated and enthroned in the cathedral. Then there are games and incredibly loud salves of gun fire, fire works, and fire crackers. The noise is an amplification of ancient ways of exorcising evil and celebrating life. Neither the Church nor the civil authorities are pleased with it, but the people have fought consistently to uphold this tradition.(*1)


*1: All information taken from the ariticle on the "Festa del Soccorso"




Sicily, in the Basilica di Santa Maria di Randazzo, on the North portico of the church, i.e. facing the altar on the left wall above a gate. 10-13th century Byzantine fresco?photo: Ella Rozett

Madonna del Pileri
(Madonna of the Pillar)

Although this Madonna is listed as a Black Madonna in several indexes the local Sicilian parishioners don’t see her as black, if they see her at all. Even some active members of the parish have never heard of the Madonna del Pileri in their church. So she doesn’t enjoy what Ean Begg would call a “living cult”. But at least the old parish priest who served in 2010 could tell me her story and gave me a book on her, published by his parish. I am listing her here because of her art-historical value and because her legend follows the typical pattern of Black Madonnas.

Santa Maria di Randazzo at the foot of Mt.Etna

Santa Maria di Randazzo at the foot of Mt.Etna

The book “La Basilica Santa Maria di Randazzo: 450. dalla Dedicazione” tells the legend of the Madonna of the Pillar thus: In the first century A.D. the apostle Peter sent St. Pellegrino to evangelize Sicily and he founded the first Christian community in the valley of Randazzo, before there was even a town by that name. When the cruelty of the first Roman persecutions reached Sicily, the Christians of this valley hid in a lava cave of Mount Etna. Here they lived and worshipped, praying before a fresco of the Madonna and Child that they had painted onto a pillar. After a while their hideout was no longer safe and they decided to abandon it. Not wanting anybody to profane their sacred space, they decided to wall it off and hide the entrance. With heavy hearts they bid their sacred image farewell, leaving a lamp burning before it that represented their love and faith. 

With persisting persecutions and passing years, following generations forgot about the sanctuary. About a hundred years later a shepherd pasturing his sheep noticed a constant light shining through a fissure of lava rock. Pressing his eye against the rock, he discovered with amazement what the early Christians had left behind. The perpetual light before the Heavenly Mother and Child was still burning! The people, delighted that the protectrice of their land was found again, built her first a tiny chapel, then a small wooden church and finally the current 16th century basilica, all in the exact spot where the cave sanctuary had been.

The book continues to venture that since the fresco is clearly of Byzantine style, since no other evidence of 1st to 3rd century Christians are found in this valley, and since some of the Arabic invaders were very cruel, it is likely that this story took place during the Muslim occupations of the 8th to 11th centuries. (For more information on Sicilian history concerning Black Madonnas see Piazza Armerina.) All the authors in the book acknowledge that though we don’t know from which century this Madonna really stems, she is certainly “extremely old” and the cult of the Virgin in this area goes way back. Its beginnings are “lost in the darkness of the centuries”, “in an indefinite and mysterious time”.(*)And where there was a cult there was an image, whether this one or another.

It seems that by the 16th century the people were ready for a more modern Madonna to replace the fading fresco. In the new basilica the Madonna del Pilari was moved to the side and the church was dedicated to the Madonna of the Assumption. Now that’s who is celebrated on August 15th, the feast day of the assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven, with all the usual pomp and party of Sicilian festivals.

There is no doubt that the people of Randazzo love their divine Mother under whatever title and image she may appear. They still tell the story of an apparition of Mary in remote times to an old hermit who lived in a cave near Randazzo. She promised him that the town would never be destroyed by lava. When Mt. Etna erupted violently in 1981 and a river of magma flowed towards the town the people reminded Heaven of this promise and the course of the river changed at the very last minute. Similarly a 16th century painting in the church tells the story of Mary saving the town from another eruption of Mt. Etna.

Other remarkable elements in the church: black monolithic pillars made of one single piece of lava rock and paintings by the 18th century Sicilian master Giuseppe Velasques.

Tip for visitors: Stay at the family owned and run Parco a beautiful country estate right on the highway outside of town. It may be 5 stars during high season, but when I stayed there in October, prices and demeanor were that of a 3 star hotel.


* La Basilica Santa Maria di Randazzo: 450. dalla Dedicazione, Edizioni Basilica Santa Maria – Randazzo: 2001, pp. 10, 13 and 14.




Positano is a village on the Amalfi Coast, in the Campania region of South-Western Italy. In the church of Santa Maria Assunta, 12th century, life size. photos: the Black Madonna before and after recent renovations

The Black Madonna
(La Madonna Nera)

Many Black Madonnas reside in places formerly dedicated to a pre-Christian goddess, but this one is different. She was preceded by female demons: in Homer’s Odyssey Positano is the place where the sirens try to lead Ulysses astray and into death.(*1) In the Christian era the roles are reversed: the good female leads the evil male to the right place.

According to local legend, around the year 1000 A.D. the icon had been stolen from Byzantium and was being transported by Saracen pirates across the Mediterranean when a terrible storm came up. Suddenly the frightened sailors heard a voice on board commanding "Posa, posa!" ("Put down! Put down!"). The precious icon was unloaded and carried to the nearest fishing village. With that the storm abated and it was clear to all that it was the Madonna’s will to remain here. Ever since then the village was called Positano in remembrance of the Virgin’s command. 

Santa Maria Assunta, the church of the Black Madonna

Santa Maria Assunta, the church of the Black Madonna

Other websites tell the story differently, but this version is the one that is acted out during her feast days.The festivities begin a week before August 15th, the feast of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven, and last for another week after. The high point is a procession of the sacred image by boat on the sea and on land.

For a complete photo report of the festivities on 8/15/2011 visit  Massimo Capodanno’s  beautiful website.

For a complete photo report of the festivities on 8/15/2011 visit Massimo Capodanno’s beautiful website.

Ships from Positano have sailed the seas for hundreds of years, trading with distant lands like Turkey and Cuba. They would often be gone for a year at a time, but the crews always tried to be back home in time to celebrate their Madonna for the two weeks of her festival.(*2) At least since the 17th century homecoming crews would follow a certain tradition: upon disembarking they would kiss their native soil, go greet their families, and later they would gather on the main beach in the Grotto of Enchantment (grotta dell’incanto). There they would do some math: each man got his share and the Black Madonna received 25% because all happy endings were attributed to her intercession. The church is full of ex voti thanking her for her help.

Not much can be historically ascertained about this Black Madonna, except that she is a Byzantine icon in whose honor a church was built in the year 1200. In the apse of the present church there are still 13th century remnants of a mosaic floor from the original structure. According to one website the Madonna Nera was brought to Positano by Benedictine monks, but I doubt there is any proof for this assertion. (*3)


*1: “Positano Myth Festival”:
*2: “PositanoNews”, 01/08/2010
*3: Comune di Positano Arte e Cultura 


Piazza Armerina


Patroness of the city and diocese. Province Enna in central Sicily, in the cathedral (Duomo), 160 x 77 cm, painting on raw silk, 11th century or older, left: after restoration, right: before restoration under template.

Most Holy Mary of the Victories
(Maria Santissima delle Vittorie)
Patronness of the city and diocese

Local tradition, as recounted by the historian Armerino Charanda, attributes this icon to the hand of St. Luke the Evangelist. What was probably meant was that she is an ancient Madonna of the type called Virgin Kykkotissa and the original such Mother with Child was believed to be the work of St. Luke. (For more information see Prague, Breznice)

The story of the Black Madonna of Piazza Armerina goes back to the 11th century, when the military power of the Saracen rulers of Sicily was broken by the Normans. (Civilian Saracens remained a powerful influence in Sicilian society and government for another century.) This mix of Arab and Berber Muslims occupied half of Spain from 710-1492, Portugal from 711 to well into the 12th century, Southern France for more than a hundred years, also beginning in the 8th century, Sicily from the 8th - 11th and Southern Italy from the 8th - 14th century. Their fate in Sicily was sealed in 1059, when Pope Nicolas II made a deal with the Norman conquistador Robert Guiscard (c 1015-85): If the recently converted “barbarians” could bring Sicily back under Christian control, the Pontiff would make him the Duke of the Italian regions Puglia and Calabria. The Normans did break the military power of the Saracens in Sicily, but it took more than three decades and the substantial help of Robert’s brother Roger (1031 – June 22, 1101).

In 1063, when Roger had won a few important battles, the Pope gave him the banner to take into battle, invoking Heaven’s help against the Muslims. Under this banner Roger continued to fight until the Saracen military power was broken around 1091. The Muslims put up a fierce fight in Piazza Armerina, which was then called Plutia. It was a decisive battle, which the Christians won in large part because the local population gathered under the banner of Mary and helped overthrow their former rulers. Roger remembered this when he had become Count Roger I of Sicily and in gratitude he gave the precious banner to the city.

There she watched over her happy children while three fairly enlightened kings ruled in Palermo. But in 1154 King William the Bad, grandson of Count Roger I, ascended the throne and Sicily fell into chaos and despair. In 1161, following an attempted coup, some rebels took refuge in Plutia. In retribution for granting them hospitality the king had the city completely destroyed. Luckily someone managed to hide the people’s dearest treasure, the victory banner of the Madonna, from both the guerillas as well as the King’s forces, who would have brought it to Palermo. She was concealed underground in a place known by so few that the knowledge of her secret whereabouts was lost to the dispersed people of Plutia. After a while the bad king gave the innocent town folks permission to gather the stones of their former home and build a fortress further up the hill (today’s district Monte). But no joy could be found in this strange place that was lacking its Mother. For 187 long years the people moaned and prayed for relief from oppression and plague.

In 1348 the Queen of Heaven finally answered the pleas. She appeared in a dream to a pious priest called Giovanni Candilio, who lived in a nearby village. The Madonna revealed to him the place where the sacred banner of Victories was buried. She also promised that once her sacred image was installed in its rightful place, the city would be liberated from the virulent plague that afflicted the whole of Sicily at the time. The priest told the people of Piazza Armerina of his dream-apparition, but no one believed him. So he went to the Bishop of Catania. Luckily he did believe and ordered that all citizens of Piazza Armerina, after three days of fasting, would gather as penitents at the place indicated by the priest. 

They did as they were told and on the dawn of May 3, 1348, after some digging, they uncovered a cypress box with a lighted lamp next to it. Opening the box, the incredulous onlookers beheld their sweet Mother in perfect condition. With her was a relic said to be a hair of the Virgin Mary that is still kept in a silver box in the cathedral. Almost two centuries of darkness and humidity had not corrupted the banner at all. With great joy the sacred image and hair was brought to the city and placed in the church of San Martino, then the main church. Soon the plague ceased and countless other miracles were attributed to her intercession. With that her fame spread throughout the Island and beyond.

The Festivals


The people of Piazza Armerina celebrate two festivals in honor of their Most Holy Mother. One is held August 12th – 14th, leading up to the Marian feast of the ascension on August 15th. It is called Palio dei Normanni (tournament of the Normans) and is one of the most suggestive “living history” events in Italy, a tournament that has been celebrated since the Middle Ages. It re-enacts the visit of Count Roger I to Piazza Armerina when he came to donate the “Vessel of Victory”, the banner of Our Lady. The first day of festivities takes place in the cathedral. The head of the city lights a candle bearing the image of the Virgin and the “knights” are blessed by the bishop as if they were going into a “holy war”. On the second day costume parades coming from the four old districts of the city meet in front of the cathedral, and Count Roger holds his triumphal entry with his troops. The Count receives the keys of the city and then the parade continues through the streets. On the third day the tournament takes place. The four districts of the city compete against each other and the winners receive a representation of the Banner of Victory, which will hang in their parish church throughout the year.

The second festival in honor of the divine Mother is a typical Sicilian Marian affair that also goes on for several days, from the last Saturday in April to May 3rd, the anniversary of the recovery of the sacred banner. It centers on a 19th century copy of Saint Mary of the Victories in the Sanctuary of Piazza Vecchia, which marks the place where the sacred banner was uncovered.


These festivities start at noon on Saturday with cannon shots and festive church bells ringing. At 9 p.m. an organized pilgrimage makes its way from the foot of the mountain to the sanctuary. A solemn Marian vigil is celebrated and the next morning, after mass, the sacred image is taken from the altar and placed on a litter, which will later be carried in procession. During the procession, on May 2nd, the icon is carried all around the city. She pauses at the cathedral where the original sacred banner now hangs. Here the parish priest and congregation solemnly entrust the city to their patroness. The Madonna di Piazza Vecchia then spends the night in yet another church. She returns to her own sanctuary on May 3rd. The bishop celebrates mass, the icon is placed back in her niche above the altar and the evening closes with the usual fireworks and party.

A tip for visitors: For accomodations I highly recommend a country estate across the valley overlooking the town. Torre di Renda is just minutes away, very comfortable, and serves the most delicious food with love.


Pescasseroli, Abruzzo:


In the Abbey of Sts. Peter and Paul, in the small city of Pescasseroli, province of L'Aquila in Abruzzo.

Maria Santíssima l'Incoronata
(The Crowned Most Holy Mary)
Most Holy Mary of the Carmel
Dear Black Madonna

Stories as to where Our Lady came from vary greatly. Some say she was brought by a monk, others by a shepherd. Yet another legend says she came from the Orient. Her maker sculpted seven Black Madonnas referred to as the Seven Sisters, who were distributed by divine intervention around the world. One ended up here in Pescasseroli, the other on the Tranquil Mountain in Foggia, and the whereabouts of the rest are unknown.

Since 1283 an annual festival and fair in honor of the Crowned Virgin is celebrated on September 8th, the feast of the birthday of the Virgin Mary. Since 1778 the festival begins the night before with the Vigil of Vestments. That night the Dear Black Madonna is brought to the main altar, dressed in royal robes and crowned with a golden crown, while Marian litanies are sung. The next morning, after mass, she is carried through the streets in a great procession with marching bands and bells ringing. After the procession she is undressed again, still to the accompaniment of litanies.

An Eternal Lamp burns before the image. Its Oil is said to have miraculous healing properties and is administered to humans and animals alike. During her undressing a priest distributes this oil to those who need it to take home.

By 1752, Most Holy Mary had proven her power by enough miracles to deserve an official coronation. Twice the city was threatened by a great fire, which only receded when the priests brought the Madonna out of the church to face the flames. The Vatican offered her a crown of pure gold, which the local bishop was glad to bestow upon her.(*1)

A beautiful copy of the Dear Black Madonna is to be found among her devoted children in St. Lawrence Parish, Buffalo, New York. While some non-Christians think the sphere in Mary's hand is an egg, the New York statue clearly shows it to be a globe, the symbol of her rule over the earth.

Left: The Crowned Virgin before renovations, when she was darker, but also quite worm eaten. Baby Jesus was missing a big part of his nose, his mother two fingers, his dress and her crown were corroding. She had been burnt in a couple of fires. The statue is made of soft poplar wood and is hollowed out, probably so as to accommodate relics. Unfortunately, it was decided to restore her skin color to the natural color of the wood, not to the previous blackness honored in her title.

*1: All information on this page was gleaned from




In her sanctuary near Biella and the source of the river Oropa, age uncertain, 132 cm, painted wood. photo: Maia Schiavona

The Black Madonna of Oropa

According to tradition Luke the Evangelist carved this statue and St. Eusebius brought it to Italy. The latter was the first bishop of Vercelli martyred in 371 A.D. He spent some time in exile in the Holy Land, because he openly opposed the Emperor's theological views. During his days in Jerusalem divine inspiration led him to three statues buried under ancient ruins. Once he was allowed to return to Italy, he left one at a hermitage he had established in Crea in the Monferrato district and the second in Cagliari on Sardinia, his birthplace. The third, the Madonna of Oropa, he installed in a cave that was a pre-Christian holy site, in order to end the local, "pagan" practices. The woods around the cave were consecrated to Apollo and the large rocks and waters to various goddesses. Soon, the villagers of Fontanamora began to organize annual pilgrimages to Our Lady, making this one of the oldest mass pilgrimages continuing to this day.


Apparently Our Lady became quite attached to this sacred place. When, more than a thousand years later, a group of monks tried to move her to a new location, she refused to go. She allowed herself to be moved half a mile, but then the three foot tall wooden statue became so heavy that no one could budge her until it was decided to return her to her cave. In commemoration of this event a "Chapel of the Transport" was erected on the spot where she refused to be moved any further away from her cave.

On the night of July 26th 1620, the feast day of St. Anne (according to tradition the mother of the Virgin Mary) Anne appeared to a nun and told her that it would be pleasing to Heaven if the statue was crowned. Since the Madonna of Oropa has worked so many miracles and has become so important to the Italians, she was crowned not only by the Pope of that year, but by three other Popes, once every hundred years, in 1620, 1720, 1820, and 1920. Hence the 3 crowns and the halo with diamond studded stars.(*1) Like many Black Madonnas, Our Lady of Oropa was invoked against the Black Death, the bubonic plague.

The statue captures a scene described in Luke 2:22-24 as the ceremony of purification (of Mary) and the presentation and dedication of Baby Jesus to God. These were performed in accordance with Mosaic law forty days after the birth of Jesus. Mary holds in her right hand the coins for the temple offering and Jesus in his left the sacrificial dove.

Until recent times the commemoration of this event was a major feast day celebrated in February with processions and the blessing of candles. Hence its name: Candlemas. When Christianity was introduced into Europe this feast day was used to supplant several pre-Christian celebrations. There was the Roman holiday called Lupercalia, which marked the end of the old year (in February) as a time of purification. February comes from Latin februare, which means to purify. It was a time to chase away any evil of the old year and to invoke the fertility of the new. Other Europeans celebrated "Imbolc" as the first stirrings of Spring in Winter.

Under Catholicism, the Virgin Mary came to represent all of creation being purified and the light of Baby Jesus' presentation to God became the spring of a new era.


*1: For more information see: Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, "Marian Shrines of Italy", Park Press: Waite Park, MN: 2000, pp.82-6


Monte Viggiano


Viggiano is in the Potenza province of the Lucania region of Southern Italy. From May to September the Madonna resides on the Sacro Monte, the holy mountain of Viggiano at 1725 m, the rest of the year down in the village parish church of Viggiano. 6th century bust with 17th century extension and renovation, almost life sized, gold covered wood.

The Black Madonna of the Sacred Mount Viggiano
(La Madonna Nera del Sacro Monte di Viggiano)
Queen and Patroness of Lucania

Here we have yet another formerly Black Madonna who has been restored to her original pigmentation. At least she is still brown.
Her story goes back to the 6th century when the city of Basilicata was still known by its Roman name: Grumentum. This town lay in a fertile valley surrounded by mountains and possessed a cathedral dedicated to St. Mary of the Assumption. It is believed that the original bust of a Dark Madonna was sculpted around 500 A.D. in order to be venerated in that cathedral and under that title.


During the Muslim invasions of the 8th and 9th centuries Grumentum was completely destroyed. The few Christians who survived took refuge in the nearby mountains, taking their beloved Black Madonna with them. Realizing that she would be safest if hidden in the earth for a while, they wrapped her in a shroud and laid her in a shallow pit in a cave. Well, a while had to turn into 2-3 centuries under Muslim rule and by the end of it the image had been forgotten. 
It took some help from Heaven to find her again. Assistance came in the 11th century when the area was back under Christian rule. Soon after it was safe once more to venerate an image of Mary, some villagers from Viggiano saw mysterious blue flames flickering again and again up on their mountain. When they went to investigate the area where the light had appeared, they realized that it had come from a cave. Probing, they found the magnificent wooden bust, undamaged by its many years abandonment to the care of the earth. Overjoyed by such a gift from God, they brought it home to their village church and called it “Santa Maria del Deposito”. 11th century records lready attest to the great devotion of the local population to their divine Mother in her mountain abode.

Interestingly enough there apparently is no legend explaining why a chapel was built in the place of her hiding and finding - the sanctuary where she spends the summers. Normally at this point Black Madonna legends would launch into an account of how the statue miraculously returned to her place in nature until people understood that she wanted a shrine there. But in this case people simply state that popular devotion demanded a commemorative church on the spot of the heavenly blue flames.

As in Vassivière, France and Monte Vergine, Italy, so here too the Black Madonna spends the summers up on the mountain and the winters down in the village, following the rhythm of mountain folk who move their cattle up the mountains in the summer and come back down with them in the fall. Black Madonnas accompanying them in this, shows again how connected the Dark Mothers are to the earth. (More on that in the introduction under “Mother Earth, Pagan Goddesses, and Black Madonnas”)

The 9 km long ascent to the Santuario del Sacro Monte (the sanctuary of the sacred mountain) is celebrated on the 1st Sunday in May with a great procession on foot. The descent to the Basilica Santa Maria del Deposito in Viggiano happens on the 1st Sunday in September. Both days are honored with great festivals, but the ascent is the greater feast, attracting many thousands of pilgrims.

In the 17th century the area was ruled by Spanish nobility who turned the statue into a full bodied Madonna and Child, modeled after their Black Madonna of Montserrat. It was they who gave her that look of a Spanish Baroque Queen. Dressed all in gold, the sacred image represents the “Great Mother of God”, says Father Mario Morra SDB.(*1)

The Queen of Lucania was solemnly crowned in 1890 by authority of Pope Leon XIII. 75 years later Pope Paul VI proclaimed her Patron and Queen of Lucania, acknowledging himself that he just put the Papal stamp of recognition on what she had already long been to the people.


*1: Most of this article is based on Don Mario Morra SDB’s article: “La Madonna Nera delSacro Monte di Viggiano (Potenza): Sono Bruna, Ma Bellla" , first published in the magazine "Maria Ausiliatrice" (Mary Help of Christians), July 2005, then posted on the Marian internet site:




In her sanctuary, a Benedictine abbey, on Mount Partenio (1,493 meters high), Province Avellino, 56 km East of Naples. In the charming medieval town of Mercogliano you catch the “funicular” or “cob train” that climbs a breath-taking slope in 7 minutes. (Or you can drive a winding road all the way up.) Open 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., painting on pine wood 460 x 230 cm, probably around 1290 A.D. though according to local legend the face was painted by St. Luke the evangelist and seems to actually stem from the 5th century.

Madonna di Montevergine
Madonna di Constantinopoli
Madonna Bruna (the brown Madonna)
Mamma Schiavona (slave mama)

The Icon
This is one of quite a few Black Madonnas that are attributed to Luke the Evangelist. Tradition says he painted only the head of Mary, which was later fitted into the larger icon. The whole is considered a “Hodegetria” type of Madonna, i.e. “she who points the way” or “the guide”, so called because her right hand points at Jesus as the way to salvation. While the Virgin of Montevergine isn’t actually in the classical Hodegetria pose, she is nonetheless known as the Hodegetria of Constantinople.

Tradition recounts that Eudocia (c. 401-460), the wife of the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II, brought Saint Luke’s original portrait of the Virgin from Palestine to Constantinople. There it was fitted into a very large icon of Mary and Jesus and greatly revered with weekly ceremonies described thus:

A 16th century copy of the Hodegetria of Smolensk. This is the typical Hodegetria gesture.

A 16th century copy of the Hodegetria of Smolensk.
This is the typical Hodegetria gesture.

"Every Tuesday twenty men come to the church of Maria Hodegetria; they wear long red linen garments, covering up their heads like stalking clothes ... there is a great procession and the men clad in red go one by one up to the icon; the one with whom the icon is pleased is able to take it up as if it weighed almost nothing. He places it on his shoulder and they go chanting out of the church to a great square, where the bearer of the icon walks with it from one side to the other, going fifty times around the square. When he sets it down others take it up in turn." Another account says, as the bearers staggered around the crowd, the icon seemed to lurch towards onlookers, who were then considered blessed by the Virgin. Clergy touched pieces of cotton-wool to the icon and handed them out to the crowd. The image was double-sided, with the crucifixion of Jesus on the other side.(*1) This makes sense if it was painted for processions.

While the Polish people claim the Hodegetria of Constantinople ended up at Czestochowa, and the Russians believe it to be their "Hodegetria of Smolensk", destroyed during the German occupation in 1941, the Italians maintain that their Mama Schiavona of Montevergine is the original first Black Madonna painted by St. Luke.

As it turns out they may almost be right. The original sacred image disappeared during the fall of Constantinople in 1453, but this one may actually be the oldest, still extant Western copy of it. At least that’s what Margherita Guarducci, an illustrious scholar of art history and archaeology claims. She investigated the famous Slave Mama of Montevergine in the 1990’s using newest technology.(*2) It turns out that the bust was painted over several times and previous analyses could only reach down to the layer that was created in the 13th century. But now Guarducci discovered another, deeper layer painted on linen burlap with a type of paint that was used in the 5th century.

But back to the capital of the East-Roman Empire: Italian traditions say that as the last Latin Emperor of Constantinople, Baldwin II, was escaping the besieged city in 1261, he took the head of the icon (the part attributed to Luke) with him. Later it came into the possession of the Angevin dynasty, the House of Anjou, who had it inserted again into a much larger image of Mary and the Christ child. Around the year 1300 they gave the icon to the sanctuary on Montevergine.

The Sanctuary
As so many Black Madonna sanctuaries, so this one too started out as a Pagan holy site dedicated to the goddess Cybele. Tradition says that in the early 11th century, when Paganism was still practiced in remote parts of Europe, St. William of Vercelli, the patron saint of Irpinia, decided to turn this mountain shrine to Cybele the Great Mother of the Gods, into a sanctuary of Mary the Most Holy Mother of God. He gathered a little band of monks around him and occupied the place for Christianity. The first real church was consecrated in 1124. It was destroyed and rebuilt several times. The current monastery, guest house, and sanctuary date from between the 18th and 20th centuries. Architecturally they are not very interesting, but the basilica is richly decorated and the whole place lies in breathtaking scenery.

Why “Slave Mama”?
Why is this Black Madonna, along with some of her other Italian sisters, called Slave Mama? Because in the mind of old time Italians her dark complexion marked her as one of the serving class, the Mother of all Slaves. An old folk song recounts how the Madonna of Montevergine was ashamed that her dark skin made her look like a slave. It made her the ugliest of the “six sisters” (six famous Madonnas in the Campania region)(*3). So she hid her face on this mountain. But lo and behold, the song concludes, this Brown Mama turned out to be the most miraculous and hence the most beautiful of them all. 
The local peasants love their Slave Mama more than any other Madonna because she is the mother of all those who are chained to hard work. She understands their plight. As another folk song says: “You alone lighten our chains, the chains to hard work, a thousand years of hard work and thousands of sweats".(*4) 
To the more politically minded (and there are many of those in Italy) the divine Slave Mama is also the mother of all who are oppressed or outcast, including gays. Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum elucidates the link between Italian Communists and their love for Black Madonnas in her book "Black Madonnas: Feminism, Religion, and Politics in Italy".(*5)


The Festival
Every year the Madonna of Montevergine is honored with a grand two part festival, which opens on February 2nd, the “purification of the Virgin” during Candlemas, and closes on September 8th, the birthday of Mary (or on the closest Sunday to it). The events draw thousands of faithful and the stream never stops. All together about two million pilgrims come to Montevergine every year. They couldn’t be a more varied bunch and they don’t always get along very well. There are monks, nuns, lay people, local peasants, foreign tourists, the Pope, droves of Naples’ homosexuals, you name it.
Many spend the night before the “festa” in Alpinolo, the nearest town to the abbey, so that they may be ready to attend the “sagljuta” (salute) to the Madonna the next morning. They await that hour with songs and dances in parks and other public places. The next day colorfully decorated floats make their way up the mountain to the monastery. They are drawn by oxen or horses and accompanied by singing and tambourine rhythms which give thanks to the Black Madonna, praising her as Our Lady of All Graces. The pilgrims sing and dance up and down the stairs of the sanctuary until they come face to face with the Madonna.


Gays at Montevergine, or Sex and the Goddess
Why would homosexuals love a Catholic Madonna, when her church doctrine condemns who they are? First, because a medieval story recounts that on a cold and gloomy day in the winter of 1256 the Madonna of Montevergine saved two gays. They had been beaten and driven from their city, brought to this mountain to die of cold and exposure. But the Mother of God had pity on them and let warm sunshine suddenly break through the darkness. The amorous couple was not only saved, but happily consummated its love without any punishment from above.(*6) Ever since then, homosexuals come to Montevergine on Candlemas day to give thanks to the Madonna and to remember this story with an ancient song and dance. They have adopted Mama Schiavona as their protectress, calling themselves “the gay sons of the Slave Mama”. 
Secondly, many gays love her because they see her as sitting on the throne of the goddess Cybele, who used to be worshiped on this mountain. To many of the gays of Naples “it matters little that this pagan goddess is now the Black Madonna who gave birth to the Son of God.”(*7) To them Mother Mary’s candlemas in February is essentially still a Pagan spring festival of rather worldly joy and new life. They are probably thinking of Cybele’s great festival, the Hilaria, which used to be celebrated on March 25th with abandoned sexual license, loud music, and general revelry. The part they ignore, of course, is that the day before marked the “Day of Blood”, when Cybele’s most fervent male devotees castrated themselves in order to qualify as priests of their goddess. Also, a great bull was castrated and ritually slain. He represented Attis, the beloved priest (or lover, in Diodorus’ version) of the goddess, who had promised the goddess perpetual chastity. When he ended up breaking his vow with a tree nymph, the goddess slayed her rival and Attis emasculated and killed himself in shame.(*8)

Like so many American neo-Pagans, so too the Italian homosexuals like to think of Pagan goddesses as sexually free and egalitarian. They duly ignore that some goddesses also demanded sexual restraint, celibacy, and virginity. Not only that, Cybele and Artemis in particular displayed some real hatred of men. How outraged would we be if the Catholic Church allowed women to become priests, but only after they cut off their breasts and donned male clothes in order to look more like their Heavenly Father! And yet, nobody seems bothered that men were only admitted to the priesthood of Cybele, after castrating themselves, donning women’s clothing, and letting their hair grow long in order to appear more like their Heavenly Mother. Similarly Artemis of Sparta received as sacrifice the agony of boys who were tied to her altar and scourged until it became sprinkled with their blood.(*9)


Yes, in Pagan goddess cults there was a time to celebrate sexuality, but also a time to honor restraint and celibacy, a time for love and a time for anger. This is reflected in the “tammurriata”, a local type of very rhythmic music and dance, accompanied by castanets and traditional drums. To the people of the Campania region it is an ancient ritual, celebrated by specially trained artists performing an almost priestly function at their great Marian sanctuaries and festivals. “The texts of the songs have both a religious and a strong pagan flavor, especially in the ambiguities with a sexual connotation. The dance represents a love game between a man and a woman or a competition and fight when two men or two women dance together”.(*10) Within one and the same verse, a singer may reflect on mystical aspects of the Virgin Mary, on the mystery of life and death, on sex and violence.

In between holy masses during the festival of Mama Schiavona, the (more or less) faithful approach the holy image singing and dancing the tammurriata. The monks aren’t always thrilled with this, but are obliged to allow it in as much as it is ancient tradition. In 2002 however, things boiled over. The abbot of Montevergine exploded with anger. He drove the gays from the churchyard, accusing them of desecrating a sacred place and yelling “Shame, shame! Your prayers aren’t welcomed here!” Now he is accused of being reactionary. But couldn’t he too be seen as part of the Cybele story? If the Black Madonna is the goddess, then he is her shepherd lover or priest, repenting for his unchecked desire. Perhaps Attis missed the difference between sacred sexual union with the goddess and his lust for a tree nymph. He paid the price by dying to his sexuality and turning into a non-sexual being: an evergreen tree, the forefather of our Christmas tree. It’s as if the goddess had said: “Oh, you like tree nymphs?! Well, be a tree then!” On the positive side the mortal shepherd boy turned into an immortal nature spirit inhabiting phallic shaped trees. Through them he is now in perpetual union with the Great Mother after all and 'all's well that ends well'. Still, I think it behooves us, gays and heterosexuals, to be conscious of the difference between lust and sacred sexuality.

The gay sons of Mary insist that they have come to Montevergine on pilgrimage for centuries, that the Brown Madonna is their connection with the divine, and that they love the pilgrimage, the prayers, songs, folk dances, and the holy mass. But they have added to the festival an aspect of gay party and civil rights demonstration. During the day the national spokesman for Communist youth challenges the abbot to be more tolerant and inclusive and after 10 p.m. the “absolutely queer disco night” begins in nearby Avellino. To many of the gays the festival is a Pagan affair dressed up as Catholic. Of course being queer and Italian, they love the Catholic disguise as much as what they perceive to be underneath.


*1: “Hodegetria" article on
*2: Previously Margherita Guarducci herself thought this honor went to the icon of Mary called Madonna of Comfort, in the church Saint Francesca Romana, in Rome, but based on this new evidence, she revised her opinion. See: "Mamma Schiavona, la prima icona di Maria", i.e. "Slave Mama, the first Icon of Mary".
*3: The Madonnas of Pompei, Mugnano, Santa Filomena, Carmine, Bagni, and Montevergine.
*4: See: "La Madonna Nera", i.e. The Black Madonna, edited by Enzo Morganti
*5: Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, Black Madonnas: Feminism, Religion, and Politics in Italy, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993
*6: See article “Candelora Day” 
*7: This part of the story is based on a 31/01/2009 article in the online magazine The Queer Way“I femminielli a Montevergine”, i.e. ‘Gays at Montevergine’. 
*8: A T Mann and Jane Lyle, Sacred Sexuality, Element Books, Shaftesbury, Dorset: 1995, pp. 119-121 and “Attis” article in Encyclopedia Britannica.
*9: See: article on Artemis, part: Encyclopedia 3. quouting Dictionary of Antiquity, s. v. Braurônia and Diamastigôsis.
*10: From a workshop announcement of the office of the tammorra.




in Altavilla Milicia, about 20 km East of Palermo, in church Madonna della Milicia, second half of 14th century, 76.5 x 101.5 cm.

Madonna della Milicia
Madonna of Loreto

Above are two versions of the same icon: on the right the original state it was restored to in 1990, when the silver template and several layers of re-painting were removed. On the left is the way it was presented since 1853, when popular devotion wanted the Madonna and child, as well as parts of Saint Francis of Assisi covered in silver plating and studded with precious stones. The practical reason behind this may have been to protect the icon from the touches and kisses of pilgrims. However, the occasion seems to have been seen as an opportunity to augment the glory of the sacred image and to give the silversmith free artistic range. So he undressed Jesus and made him sit like a baby rather than stand like a toddler. He made Mary stand up from her throne, but gave her a more royal outfit in compensation. He tied Saint Francis’ belt further up, making it look like a cane. Then he disappeared the figure of a kneeling young man whom Saint Francis recommends to the Virgin. Most likely this is the person who commissioned the work, possibly a certain Marquis Francisco Maria Beccardelli of Bologna, who probably wanted this painting for his personal chapel in his palace and ordered it from a Tuscan artist.

The template that covered the painting for 137 years.

The template that covered the painting for 137 years.

I agree that the Marquis distracts from the spiritul power of the painting and it seems a bit presumptuous for the painter to dress him in the colors of Jesus and Mary. However, it seems equally as presumptuous to change the character of the image that dramatically and to alter every part of it. 

This Mother of God is also called the Madonna of Loreto. I suppose she is meant to be a copy or variation of that other, much more famous Black Madonna. As in Loreto, baby Jesus stands upright on his Mother’s knee with a similar fold of her mantel under him and his hand raised in blessing. The silver mantel also shows a certain similarity to the Loreto brocade mantel.
Like any real Black Madonna, the Madonna della Milicia is considered a miraculous image and, it seems, as such she needed a good legend of origination. Here is the story people tell:
She was a gift (from God) to the people of Milicia, coming to them from a Corsican pirate ship. The vessel was miraculously prevented from continuing its route on the sea off the coast of Milicia. The sacred icon didn’t allow the ship to proceed because the disrespectful crew had used it as a cover for a barrel. Only once Our Lady was passed into good and devout hands could she ship be moved again. In a spiritual rescue mission of sorts, her devotees carried this treasure to land and placed it in an ox cart. Without any interference from the people, the oxen took the sacred image to the chapel where it wanted to be venerated. Gradually the original building became the present sanctuary.


This theme of God preventing a ship from continuing its course until its Madonna is given up to the local population recurs with suspicious frequency around the Italian coastline. I wouldn’t doubt that people actually used some less than friendly means to enforce what they wanted to be God’s will. All over Europe medieval Christians stole religious treasures from eachother and enshrined them in splendid cathedrals.

This Black Madonna’s yearly festival is held on September 6-8th, the birthday of the Virgin Mary. It is one of the most fervent Marian festivals of Western Sicily. It starts as the faithful begin their pilgrimage to the sanctuary of the Madonna often on foot, reciting the rosary, and illuminating their way with votive candles and torches. It culminates in a great procession when the Black Madonna is placed on a giant float, 12 meters high, that represents the ship she came in on and is drawn by two teams of oxen in commemoration of the oxen who took her to her final destination.(*1) At one point two girls dressed as angels, are lowered from above onto the float as they sing the praises of the Madonna in their Sicilian dialect.(*2)

*1: For more information on the connection between Black Madonnas and Sacred Bulls, Oxen, and Cows see: Olot.htm 
*2: All info taken from the following websites: and




In her sanctuary 12 km outside of the city, Via Don Orione, 1, 71122 Foggia, in the region Puglia/Apulia, at least 11th century if not much older, natural wood.

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. 

Though the architecture of the sanctuary is thoroughly modern Mary Beth Moser finds that it feels ancient.

Though the architecture of the sanctuary is thoroughly modern Mary Beth Moser finds that
it feels ancient.

In 1929 the Italian government and the Catholic Church collaborated to take the sanctuary out of the hands of the order, give it to the Church as a whole, and secure funds for a major modernization. In 1950 the new basilica, a seminary, a center of spirituality and ample space for pilgrims was built.

Over the centuries a long list of saints and distinguished visitors have come here as pilgrims, including St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Paola, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Vincenzo Ferreri, San Bernardino of Siena, St. Alphonsus and St. Gerard. The Crowned Black Madonna however, is still the sanctuary of poor people: shepherds and peasants.


Don Mario Morra suggests that perhaps the statue had been hidden in her tree by devout believers in order to evade destruction during the iconoclastic struggles of the 8th century, an internal Christian clash over the use of images.(*4) But Mary Beth Moser brings forth evidence that the image may actually be a much older representation of the goddess Juno (or Hera as she was known by the Greeks).(*5) Christians certainly destroyed many Pagan images as they sought to convert their world. So it is quite possible that some of the most ancient Black Madonnas found in trees, caves, and in the earth were actually Pagan goddesses that had been hidden from Christians. Here are some clues that point in this direction in Foggia:


1. The Child Jesus in the Madonna's lap is a very recent addition. It was placed there by Pope John Paul II in 1987. Before that it was considered missing (disperso), but it may never have been there. Holy cards as old as the 19th century portray the original Black Madonna alone, without the baby. If Baby Jesus indeed belonged with this statue and was lost, why would it take more than a hundred years to replace him? An interesting old painting hangs in the Chapel of the Apparition in the crypt below the altar. It portrays the Mother as dark and the child as white. Christian art tells sacred stories to those who can't read and to those who have no written record of long ago events. We are in the latter category and the story the images tell us is that a white Mother of God descended from Heaven in order to reveal to us a dark Mother on Earth. The white one left her baby, Jesus Christ, with the dark one. 

These paintings tell a story: a white Mother of God descended
from Heaven in order to reveal a dark Mother on Earth. 
The white one left her baby with the dark one.





If the dark Mother was enthroned alone, she was probably a Greco-Roman goddess, like Hera (on the right). Mary the Mother of Christ, when shown enthroned, was never portrayed without Jesus either on her lap or next to her. It seems to me that by placing a white baby Jesus in the lap of the dark mother, the Queen of Heaven christened the ancient Earth Goddess, uniting heaven and earth, Christianity and its predecessors.

Some other Black Madonnas in Italy are portrayed with a white baby Jesus, e.g. the Madonna del Soccorso in the city San Severo, also in the province of Foggia (on the right). As the protector of the fields and crops she holds a bouquet of olives, grapes, and wheat. It seems to me that these images stress that Jesus came from a different place than Mary, maybe even from a different religion. He came from heaven; she came from the earth - and yet they now belong together, like yin and yang.


2. Other elements that point to a connection with the old earth goddesses are the Madonna's association with animals and sacred trees, such as the ox or the deer that help humans discover her, and the remains of the oak tree that are still preserved in the basilica. Pagan deities were often worshipped in sacred groves and forests and accompanied by sacred animals. The sanctuary of the Black Madonna at Capo Colonne in Crotone was built on the grounds of a temple to Hera, which was surrounded by sacred cattle and woods.

3. Another tradition this Black Madonna shares with her pre-Christian sisters is the ritual of being dressed in precious robes. L'Incoronata's robes are replaced once a year by pious women, a distant echo of goddess-priestesses.

4. One of the more sticky links of the Madonna to Pagan goddesses is the practice of blood sacrifice. Until the present, modern basilica was built, some of Mary's devotees performed 'tongue dragging'. I.e. if they were determined to purify a grave sin or negative karma, or if they were just asking for a big favor, they would drag their tongue along the ground into the church and down the aisle all the way to the statue, which they then kissed. A trail of blood would be left by this form of penance. - Not a pretty thought, but how transformative this ritual must be! To what degree must the ego and the rational mind be humbled to do something this crazy!


*1 Giovanni D'Onorio De Meo, L'Incoronata di Foggia, Edizioni Santuario dell'Incoronata, Foggia 1975.
* 2 An April 1001 brochure of the sanctuary quoted in Mary Beth Moser, "Longing for Darkness: Exploring the Power of the Black Madonnas in Italy" Dea Madre Publishing: Vashon Island, 2005, p.89
*3 Just like in Halle, Belgium, the Church still holds on to its ancient roots of nature worship, buried in the bowels of its crypts. 
*4 Don Mario Morra, in an internet article on Maria Santissima Incoronata: Signora di Sovrumana Bellezza (A Lady of Superhuman Beauty), in Rivista Maria Ausiliatrice, 2004-4, on the website of the Salesian Brothers of Italy:
*5 Mary Beth Moser, op. cit. pp.90-94



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Near Ancona on the Adriatic Sea. A modern copy of the original statue, lost in a fire in 1921. 3ft, wood.

The Black Madonna of Loreto

Part of what made the Madonna of Loreto world famous is the house she came in. It is a dark, little brick house called the Holy House of Mary, because it is believed to literally be the house where the Virgin Mary lived in Nazareth. Luke says, the Angel Gabriel was sent to her town and "came in unto her, and said, Hail…" (1:28). That is to say, he went into her house and right then and there, through his prophecy and her consent, "the Word became flesh." It is presumed that at the time men still moved into the houses of their wives, so that Jesus and Joseph would have lived in this same House of Mary.

It was honored as a sacred place of pilgrimage from the first days of Christianity. In the 4th century Emperor Constantine built a basilica over it, with Mary's Holy House forming its crypt.

So how did it get to Italy? Well, Muslim forces destroyed many Christian shrines when they first invaded the Holy Land and again later, during the Crusades. The basilica over Mary's House was reduced to ruins twice, but each time the crypt containing the home of the Holy Family remained untouched. By 1291, the Crusaders had definitely lost the war and it seemed only a matter of time until Mary's house would be demolished. At that point, it suddenly disappeared from Palestine and showed up in Europe, containing, as one report says, a "strange" (i.e. black?) statue of the Virgin.

Some say Christians took the house down brick by brick and rebuilt it in Europe. But there is a much more beautiful tradition that says angels carried it on their wings to safety.(*1)

Finding a place where the building and the pilgrims who wanted to visit it were secure proved a difficult task, even for angels! For three years the house blessed Tarsetto, in modern Croatia, with its presence, until the Muslim invasions reached that place also. Then the house tried its luck in Italy, but even on such Christian soil it took a while to find a truly safe harbor. First bandits disturbed the peace, then a pair of fighting brothers on whose land it had settled. But on the fourth try, on December 10th 1294 it finally found its resting place in Loreto, where it remains to this day.

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This sounds like a crazy story, and yet there is supporting evidence for its veracity. Even medieval Christianity possessed a healthy dose of skepticism. When reports spread that a house had appeared over night in a desolate place and holy men had had dreams and visions about it being the Holy House of Mary, committees were formed. Not once but five times the house was investigated in its present location as well as its foundation in the Holy Land, in 1292, 1296, 1524, 1871, and some time between 1913 and 1922. The results confirmed that: A) There used to be a house in Nazareth venerated as Mary's House. Many pilgrims described it in letters and diaries until the year 1291. After that only the grotto which formed one part of the house is mentioned anymore. B) The dimensions of the house in Loreto matched those of the foundation in Nazareth. C) The style, the bricks, and the mortar of the house in Loreto are not Italian but Palestinian. D) The house stands without a foundation on ground which used to be part public road, and part the ditch and field next to the road - not a place where humans would construct a building. E) Countless miracles took place in this little house, confirming its spiritual potency.


(*1) : Academy of the Immaculate: "Marian Shrines of Italy" New Bedford, USA, : 2000, pp. 47-49. 30 pages are dedicated to the sanctuary of Loreto.





In her sanctuary Maria Santissima di Custonaci, Piazza Santuario 1. The town lies 1 ½ hours West of Palermo, Sicily. Painted on wood probably by an artist of the Flemish school 15-16th century.

Maria Santissima di Custonaci, 
Patroness of Custonaci, Erice, and Valderice, Madonna of the Water
(Madonna del Acqua),

Here we have yet another whitened Madonna, before and after renovations. Some locals still call her black while others don’t. In 1993 Lucia Birnbaum remarked with relief that this Madonna had remained black.(*1) (I guess she didn’t knock on wood…) The renovation was performed around 2005. While it lightened her complexion, it also brought a very important element to light: the wheat. Naked Baby Jesus holds three sprigs of it, a triple symbol for bread and the earth, while Mary’s mantle is decorated with vases holding seven sprigs. Note how the renovation before the last took pains to cover that wheat up. It replaced the decorations on Mary’s mantle with a meaningless leafy design and adorned the Mother with jewelry that covered the wheat in the hands of Baby Jesus. Why go through such pains to cover something up? Here is why:

Demeter (right) holds a royal scepter and sheaf of wheat. Persephone (left), holds an Eleusian torch and pours libations from a cup.

Demeter (right) holds a royal scepter and sheaf of wheat. Persephone (left), holds an Eleusian torch and pours libations from a cup.

Demeter and Persephone bid the young demi-god Triptolemos adieu and send him off with their gift, the knowledge of growing cereals, to spread it around the world. Copied from a vase from about 450 B.C.E.

Demeter and Persephone bid the young demi-god Triptolemos adieu and send him off with their gift, the knowledge of growing cereals, to spread it around the world. Copied from a vase from about 450 B.C.E.

Mary, the Earth, and Demeter

Brigitte Romankiewicz explains that the type of Madonna called ‘Madonna in the wheat dress’ (Madonna im Ährenkleid) spread throughout Europe in the 14th century. But in the 6th century Mary was already referred to as the fertile field which brings forth the wheat (baby Jesus) for the bread of life (the crucified and resurrected Christ). This symbolism, she says, clearly connects to pre-Christian thoughts about the child of the light (often represented by a golden head of wheat) coming forth from the dark womb of God/dess (shown as the dark mantle of Mary).(*2) 
Now you may wonder: “Was pre-Christian thought still alive in the 15-16th century, when this Madonna was painted?” Certainly it had been suppressed for a long time, but remember: this was the Renaissance, the rebirth, or return to romanticized Greek roots of European sophistication. Everybody knew that those roots included honoring a divine feminine. The renaissance was also intent on a renewed unabashed appreciation of the body (hence the naked child and nursing mother). The argument was that according to the Bible (Genesis 3:7) the need to cover one's nakedness didn't arise until humanity's fall into sin. It follows that those who are free of sin, like Jesus and Mary, don't feel a need to hide their bodies.

All that is left of Demeter's temple in Enna

All that is left of Demeter's temple in Enna

“Good Catholics” would likely interpret the wheat as pointing solely to Jesus becoming our bread of life. But why then cover it up? Especially in Sicily wheat is inextricably connected to the Greek earth-goddess Demeter, who was venerated there as the goddess of grain, for many centuries. Sicilians proudly proclaimed that she dwelled on their island, in her great temple in Enna, overlooking the whole isle. (Of course, Greece, Egypt, and Crete also professed to be her homeland, but that’s beside the point, right?) Only the foundations of this temple in Enna are left, but Demeter lives on in the half subconscious memory of the Sicilians. She taught humanity to grow wheat and so wheat was Sicily’s gift to humanity. It is present everywhere: on Sicily’s flag and as an offering to Jesus and the saints in churches, homes, and bars.
In her wonderful book “No Pictures in My Grave: a Spiritual Journey in Sicily” Susan Caperna Lloyd relates the various ways in which ancient goddess rites linger in Catholic traditions.(*3) She mentions that until the late 1800’s a statue of Demeter holding Persephone stood on the altar of the Catholic church in Enna. An old sacristan comments: “But when the Pope found out, he made the people take the statues down … now we have the Madonna and her child. But to me, it is the same thing.” 
Caperna Lloyd also describes the “bread ladies” of San Biagio, who bake religious bread ornaments for special holidays. She found that at least some of those women publicly acknowledge that their custom has its roots in ancient Demeter rites, even if the tradition has long become part of Christian celebrations.

a street shrine to San Calogero in Agrigento

a street shrine to San Calogero in Agrigento

The official guide book of the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento includes a chapter on Demeter and Christian practices in Sicily. It says that the origins of Demeter are rooted in older forms of the Great Mother and that the offerings of wheat and bread that used to be brought to the Goddess are now given to Christian saints. In Agrigento it is Saint Calogero, whose followers throw bread rolls containing fennel seeds at his statue during the processions of the saint.(*4) Interesting how dark Mother Earth was replaced here buy an old black monk who is famous for helping the poor during the plague.

Another saint whom the Sicilians seem to link with Demeter is San Biagio (St. Blase) an early bishop and martyr. He was famous for healing not only humans but also wild animals who would gather at his cave. The above mentioned “bread ladies” live in a town called after him and in Agrigento a church of San Biagio was erected on the foundations of a temple of Demeter. It was built in such a way that the place where the “holy of holies” of the old temple used to be was left uncovered, with two round sacrificial altars next to it still in place. It’s as if two groups agreed to share this space: Christians and the worshippers of Demeter. It reminds me of Northern California where Buddhists meet in Christian churches and some churches serve as synagogues on Fridays. It seems to me that many European Catholics appreciate that their roots reach into the ancient, even if pre-Christian, past. It's all still part of who they are and the divine by so many different names is still the divine…

San Biagio on foundation of Demeter temple in Agrigento

San Biagio on foundation of Demeter temple in Agrigento

sacrificial altars of Demeter next to church

sacrificial altars of Demeter next to church

But back to Custonaci: According to Ean Begg the Madonna of the Water is attributed to St. Luke,(*5) but none of the more recent Italian internet sites claim that, nor do the locals know her by that title. Instead they tell this story:
Some time in the 16th century a French ship was in grave danger of a fatal wreck. The crew invoked the Madonna before an icon they were carrying on board and miraculously they were rescued. When they anchored safely in the bay of Cala Buguto and came ashore in Cornino, Custonaci, they felt obliged to donate their Madonna to the local community and to build her a sanctuary there, in commemoration of their rescue. So since she came to her children from the sea she may have been called Madonna of the Water.

In recognition of her many miracles the Vatican allowed her official coronation in 1752. Photos by  Schano

In recognition of her many miracles the Vatican allowed her official coronation in 1752. Photos by


Her landing is reenacted every year and, as you can see below, the whole town shows up for it. The festivities last three days: the last Monday through Wednesday of August. Monday at sunset her ship lands, surrounded by a procession of fishing boats. As the sacred image comes ashore, it is greeted with fireworks and then solemnly processed to its church. Tuesday is a holiday and Wednesday the (once) Black Madonna is carried in a magnificent procession through the streets of Custonaci.

Tips for the traveler:
1. From the Sanctuary of the Madonna of Custonaci a 4 km long pilgrimage path leads via a 9th century village and living history museum at the mouth of the cave called Mangapane to the Cave of the Crucifix. It’s a beautiful nature hike. You can drive as far as Mangapane.

2.Custonaci lies near Erice, which was famous for centuries for its great temple of Venus. The Romans remodeled it, but it had already been a holy site of a fertility goddess since at least the 7th century B.C.E. The little that remains of it lies inside the Norman “Castle of Venus”. Although the sacred well of Venus now runs dry many couples still choose the place to get married. Even Christian newly weds come here for a blessing from the Goddess of Love after they get out of church.

View from Venus temple over the Norman castle with the Mediterranean and the Egadi Islands in the background

View from Venus temple over the Norman castle with the
Mediterranean and the Egadi Islands in the background

The sacred well of Venus in Erice now runs dry.

The sacred well of Venus in Erice now runs dry.


*1: Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, Black Madonnas: Feminism, Religion & Politics in Italy, Northeastern University Press, Boston: 1993
*2: Brigitte Romankiewicz, Die Schwarze Madonna: Hintergruende einer Symbolgestalt, Patmos Verlag, 2004, p. 197
*3: Susan Caperna Lloyd, No Pictures in My Grave: a Spiritual Journey in Sicily, Mercury House, San Francisco: 1992, p.55
*4: Archeaeologicaland Landscape Park of the Valley of the Temples, The Valley of the Temples of Agrigento, Agrigento: 2008, p.115
*5: Ean Begg, The Cult of the Black Virgin, Arkana: 1985, p. 241



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In the cathedral, province Calabria on the Southern tip of Italy, attributed to Luke, controversially dated anywhere from the 7th to the 14th century. 
Photo: Maria Schiavone

Madonna of Capo Colonna
Dawn of Peace

Tradition says that Luke's icon was brought to Italy by Dionysius the Areopagite, a Greek disciple of Paul, who became the first bishop and the patron saint of Crotone.

The image was installed in a church in Capo Colonna, 12 km from Crotone, near a sacred grove sheltering a famous temple of Hera Lacinia, a goddess revered as the protectress of women in childbirth. Since materials from this temple were used to build the cathedral in Crotone and a terrible earthquake hit this region in 1638, only a single column of Hera's temple remains standing. Still it's a beautiful site overlooking the Gulf of Taranto with the Madonna's little church nearby.

The original icon is now housed in the cathedral in Crotone, but a copy holds the place in Capo Colonna. Once a year the Madonna comes home for a visit on the cape. This occasion commemorates the miracle that blackened the Madonna and is celebrated with great festivities in May, the month of Mary. On the first day of the month the icon is taken down from the main high altar and placed in the nave. This makes the Madonna accessible to her children who respond by crowding around to kiss her. She is then carried in a comparatively short procession around town, stopping for a special blessing at the hospital. On the third Saturday a great crowd of faithful follow Our Lady in a much longer procession from the cathedral to Cape Colonna. Leaving around 1:00 p.m., they walk, many barefoot, about thirteen kilometers and arrive at the Cape around 6:30p.m. The night is spent with the Madonna and the local bishop at the cemetery. At the break of dawn the journey resumes, arriving at the old sanctuary with first light. Having spent one day at her old home, the Madonna returns to Crotone by night. This time she is transported by boat, accompanied by a fleet of fishing vessels lit up by torch light. As she enters the harbor of Crotone she is greeted by music and fireworks. The fishermen thus secure the Madonna's protection for their trips out to sea.

Mary's Festival of the Dawn continues throughout the month of May. Every seven years it is extra special. Usually a smaller copy of the actual holy image is taken on the pilgrimage, but then the life size original is carried in procession to Capo Colonna and back, foregoing the boat ride.

The earliest record of the Madonna in Capo Colonna stems from a 6th century manuscript entitled "The Book of Miracles". It mentions a small church in the town where the faithful venerate a sacred image attributed to Luke.

In 1519 the icon fell into the hands of Turkish pirates but was miraculously preserved. The thieves tried to burn it, but while the flames darkened the Madonna they would not consume her. The painting still shows a little scorching from the fire. Perceiving the power of this treasure, reminiscent of Moses' burning bush, the pirates decided to take it with them. But once it was on their ship, they were unable to move their vessel until they threw the Madonna overboard. She drifted to shore, where a fisherman by the name of Agazio lo Morello found her. He hid her in his cabin. Only on his deathbed did he reveal his treasure.

Countless other miracles have been attributed to the Dawn of Peace. She is said to have saved her town from the plague, calmed an earthquake, and healed many sick.


Monte Civita


In her sanctuary on Mt. Fusto, also referred to as Monte Civita, 670 meters above sea level, in the Aurunci mountain range, near Itri, province Latina, attributed to Luke, painted on wood..

The Black Madonna
Most Holy Mary della Civita 

A lovely story is told of how this icon miraculously escaped the iconoclastic destructions of the 8th century in the Byzantine empire. Two monks of St. Basil were trying to hide Most Holy Mary when they were discovered by soldiers and locked up, with the sacred image, in a house overlooking the sea. Sensing that death and destruction were in store for them and their holy treasure, they hurled the wooden icon into the sea, saying: "If this is really a miraculous thing, it will save itself." The Heavenly Mother returned the favor of those two monks, who had risked their lives for her, by protecting them from harm.

After 54 days of floating on the sea, her journey ended when she was washed ashore on the coast of Sicily, in the county of Messina. She was venerated in Messina for a while, but one day she mysteriously disappeared from there only to reappear miraculously on Mt. Civita.

That day a simple deaf-mute cowherd was looking for his cow, which had gotten lost on Mt. Civita. To his amazement he found the beast kneeling before a tree, its eyes fixed on the sacred icon which had appeared in the branches. Upon witnessing this scene, the cowherd regained his ability to hear and speak. This was the first of countless miracles yet to come in the new home of the Black Madonna. Immediately the man returned to his village and told the good news.

The sacred image was entrusted to the Benedictine monastery on Mt. Civita. Over the centuries the stream of pilgrims grew to such proportions, that bigger sanctuaries and pilgrims' hostels were needed first in 1491 then again in 1826.

In 1527 the plague had broken out in the area and decimated the population. Finally the people took their despair to the Madonna della Civita. A bigger crowd than ever gathered at her sanctuary on July 21 and carried the sacred icon in procession throughout the villages of the surrounding area, all the while imploring the Black Madonna to free the people from the Black Death. Suddenly a dark cloud was seen rising from the earth and dissolving in the sky. Soon the plague ended. Ever since then, July 21st is the solemn feast day of the Black Madonna della Civita. About half a million pilgrims come each year to this holy place overlooking hills and sea. No less than 10% of them still come walking from Cellole, 42 km. away, and from Pontecorvo, 37 km away.

On the base of the icon, the three letters L.M.P. can be made out, though they are badly faded. Some people say they stand for "Lucas me pinxit," which is Latin for "Luke painted me." The painting was renovated several times: in 1777, 1815, 1953, and 1977. Many ex-voto offerings attest to the Madonna's miraculous powers, not to mention the two crowns which were conferred upon her in 1777 and 1877.

Considering how popular this sanctuary is, it is an amazingly quiet place of prayer and contemplation. At the same time it reaches the world through its own radio station which broadcasts Christian teachings and culture non-stop.(*1)


*1: Information on this page is based on: "Il Santuario della Madonna della Civita, Itri" and