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 Statella.com
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.