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