Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry Nov 2015               

Marianism in Campania

The Seven Madonnas

Marianism is the religious belief in, and practice of, devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus. (In Italian, the term is generally il culto della Madonna; note that culto in Italian is simply a synonym for religious belief. It has none of the negative connotations of “cult” in English). Marianism is common in most forms of non-Protestant Christianity such as Roman Catholicism and various Eastern Orthodox faiths. It is quite strong in the Campania region of Italy, of which Naples is the capital. Devotion to Mary in Campania is particularly manifested in "The Seven Madonnas of Campania." (Pictured above: one of the sanctuaries involved in the cycle of pilgrimages and festivals dedicated to the Seven Madonnas of Campania. This one is the Santuario di Maria Santissima dell'Avvocata [Most Holy Mary, the Advocate] located above Maiori on the Amalfi Coast.]             Photo courtesy of Napoli Underground.

Some scholars trace the devotion to these "seven sisters" to the legends of the various sibyls in Greek (and Roman) mythology, which found their way through the process of syncretism (the mixing of religious beliefs) into Christianity in the first few centuries of the faith. There is actually a Neapolitan folk song that starts: “How blessed was St. Anne..." [traditionally, the mother of Mary] Seven daughters and all seven were Madonnas... .”   The seven are the objects of devotion in seven different churches or sanctuaries in the Campania region; each church is named for the town where they are located or for characteristics attributed to that Madonna.* They are:

- the Madonna of the Arco of Sant'Anastasia (Somma Vesuviana, province of Naples);

- the Madonna Pacchiana di Castello (Somma Vesuviana, prov. Naples; (pacchiana is an adjective and may refer to a 'gaudy' color; of persons it may mean popular, unrefined, vulgar; in this case it means 'of the people');

- the Madonna of the Hens (Pagani, prov. of Salerno);

- the Madonna of the Baths (Scafati, prov. of Salerno);

- the Madonna of The Advocate (Maiori, prov. of Salerno);

- the Madonna of Materdomini (Nocera Superiore, prov. of Salerno);

- the Madonna di Montevergine (prov. of Avellino). She is one of famous "Black Madonnas" in Christianity and also called Mamma Schiavona (pictured, right; also see link in previous sentence). This Madonna is celebrated on two occasions: Sept.12 and Feb. 2; thus there are actually eight different celebrations in what amounts to a cycle of pilgrimages to each one, starting in February and going into September. Roughly, they start towards the beginning of spring and finish at the end of summer, thus corresponding also to the period of pre-Chrstian agricultural festivals.

The complete list of festivals in chronological order:

Madonna of Montevergine, Feb. 2 - Montevergine 

Madonna of the Arco of S.Anastasia, Monday after Easter - S.Anastasia
Madonna of the Hens, Sunday after Easter - Pagani
Madonna of Castello, May 3 - Somma Vesuviana

Madonna of the Baths, Ascension Sunday - Scafati

Madonna of the Advocate, Monday after Pentacost - Maiori

Madonna of Materdomini, August 14 agosto - Nocera Superiore
Madonna of Montevergine, Sept. 12 settembre - Montevergine 
The rituals connected with these particular religious festivals are not at all somber. They inevitably involve genuine folk songs, traditional musical instruments, festive dress and folk dances. Some of the names of the sites are curious and require a bit of explanation.(These are links to Montevergine and The Advocate.) The Madonna of the Hens in Pagani (technically, the real name is the Madonna of the Carmelo, from the name of the Carmelite religious order) is called "Madonna of the Hens because at some point in the 1500s, the statue of Mary was buried to protect it from war, invasion, vandals, etc. and was then forgotten about. It is only through the persistent scratching by a flock of hens on the surface that a piece of it showed though the terrain, whereupon it was uncovered and restored. The Madonna Pacchiana of Castello (pictured, right) confused me a bit until I realized (as I note, above) that "vulgar" is to be taken as "of the people." Technically the name is simply la Madonna di Castello (castle), but she is called in dialect 'a Mamma pacchiana (in dialect, Mamma—capitalized—and Madonna may be conflated) as a description of her earthy big-boned "farm girl" look (pictured, right). (Speaking of syncretism, first paragraph, look carefully at this photo. Notice that in the background of a celebration of the mother of Jesus in a small town in southern Italy on the slopes of Vesuvius, there is a Confederate flag! If you are curious abut that, click here.)

The Madonna of the Baths is so-called because of the presence of a fountain and pool of water with reputed curative powers near the site where the church was later built in the 1700s. The festival of the Madonna of Materdomini (pictured, right) takes place in Nuocera Superiore on the premises of the sanctuary, which seems to be physically the largest of the seven sites. The church goes back to 1061 and is considered so important that it was declared a "minor basilica" by Pope Pius XI in 1923. Finally, the term "Arco" in Madonna of the Arco of Sant'Anastasia is problematic. It could mean bow (as in rainbow), arch as in the Arch of Triumph, and ark as in Noah's ark. Numbers one and three sounded pretty good: maybe a miracle rainbow or maybe this is where Noah landed! I guessed 1 or 3. Wrong. It seems to be 2
—the whole area has been called arco for centuries; it probably refers to the remnants of an old Roman arch or series of arches at one time found nearby.

I repeat that if you go to one of these festivals of the Seven Madonnas you are not going to a church service; you're going to a folk festival that merges religious devotion with the natural world
, an agricultural ritual, if you will, just as people have done for thousands of years. Each festival has its own characteristic dances and songs that scholars take quite seriously. One of the dances at Arco, for example, is accompanied by the words:
There was a fig tree loaded with prunes/They climbed the tree to get the prunes and all the pears fell off/And every peach weighed a ton/The man who owned the cherries came and yelled/Thief! You stole my grapes!
I am looking at a scholarly footnote** to that passage that tells me that this kind of lyric is found in all European farming cultures and is an expression of the so-called "upside-down world" or "inverted world"; that is, a world that mixes dreams and reality at the moment of the ritual. They are to be seen as "liberating" and "eschatological" (that which is to come at the end of time).***
But go anyway. You'll enjoy it.

* " that Madonna." If you're confused by the idea of seven Madonnas, here is a passage by George Santayana that might help (in Reason and Religion, vol. 3 of The Life of Reason, Dover publications edition, 1982, New York, pp. 101.103):
In a Catholic country, every spot and every man has a particular patron. These patrons are sometimes local worthies, canonised by tradition or by the Roman see, but no less often they are simply local appellations which are known theoretically to refer all to the same numen, but which practically possess diverse religious values; for the miracles and intercessions attributed to the Virgin under one title are far from being miracles and intercessions attributable to her under another. He who has been all his life devout to Loreto will not place any special reliance on the Pillar at Saragossa. A bereaved mother will not fly to the Immaculate Conception for comfort, but of course to Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows. Each religious order and all the laity more or less affiliated to it will cultivate special saints and special mysteries. There are also particular places and days on which graces are granted, as not on others, and the quantity of such graces is measurable by canonic standards.  So many days of remitted penance correspond to a work of a certain merit, for there is a celestial currency in which mulcts and remissions may be accurately summed and subtracted by angelic recorders...

** In Canti e tradizioni popolari in Campania by Roberto Simone, Lato Side, Rome, 1979. pp.79-80.
*** footnote to a footnote:

I struggled with the Italian term mondo alla rovescia and settled on “upside-down world,” perhaps not the best choice. I ran it by Prof. Warren Johnson who kindly wrote:
   I do not know of a single word that calls to mind what you describe. Mircea Eliade wrote a number of books on the Myth of Eternal Return. Reality seems to exist for "primitives" solely through their participation in rites which allow them to re-create important events that explain their origin.

   There is a loan word in German that comes from Hebrew Tohuwabohu.  It's from the 2nd verse of Genesis: the earth was tohu and bohu, formlessness and emptiness, or what the King James Version calls "without form and void." My son heard the opening verses of Genesis when he was very young and the word Tohuwabohu caught his ear.  Probably his grandmother used the word to describe the mess her grandchildren created in the playroom. So he asked what the word meant and I answered first in German saying "Durcheinander" and then in English saying, "Topsy-turvey."
That is what I take eschatological [from the Greek root for furthest] to mean in this usage: religious behavior that returns the participant, for a brief moment, to a "furthest" age that was out of timeformless, void, topsy-turveyto be part of the events described in one's myths and then to be reborn. I am convinced that even for modern participants, it is not a “show” but a meaningful experience
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