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" www.storadeisordi.it/articolo.asp?ENTRY_ID=356 and www.visitaitri.it/santuario_civita.htm