Black Madonna Witnesses, Grieves, and Endures

madonnaThis Lent has been a pilgrimage from ashes to lilies, with snow and sleet in between. Frost and flurries have prevented spring from fully arriving, but in Sicily, crocuses and hyacinths have bloomed for weeks. Soon the faithful will process through the streets carrying statues of Mary. Even at Easter, the Madonna plays a central role in Sicilian worship.

Many Sicilians believe the resurrected Christ visited grieving mother. This belief partly reflects the island’s Punic and Greek past, when Sicilian women observed the difficult transition from winter to spring by mourning for Tammuz and Adonis. The word Easter, in fact, derives from the Semitic goddess Ishtar, who brings back her son and consort Tammuz from the Underworld. Later she was identified with the Greek goddess Aphrodite, the lover of Adonis.

However, the idea that the risen Jesus first appeared to his mother dates back to the dawn of Christianity, even though the Gospels never mention this story. Early tradition includes the Madonna among the woman disciples who visited Christ’s tomb on Easter morning. Over time, folk stories evolved about a separate private apparition. What devoted son would not want to visit and comfort his mother, particularly after she had witnessed the most important events of his life and ministry?

St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan and Doctor of the Church, concurred. “Vidit ergo Maria resurretionem Domini,” he states in a fourth-century treatise on virginity: “et prima vidit, et credidit.” Mary, therefore, saw the resurrection of the Lord: she saw it first and believed. Sedulius, a 5th century Christian writer, dramatizes this event in his long Virgilian poem Carmen paschale. Prosper Guéranger, the 19th century French liturgist, cites numerous ancient prayers and hymns (especially from the East) that affirm the same.

Perhaps the most moving is the Regina Cæli, sung or recited in place of the Angelus during the Easter season, from Holy Saturday through the Saturday after Pentecost. Legend has it that Pope Gregory the Great heard angels chanting the first three lines one Easter morning in Rome, while following barefoot in a great religious procession of the icon of the Virgin painted by Luke the Evangelist:

Regina cæli, lætare, alleluia!
Quia quem meruisti portare, alleluia,
Resurrexit, sicut dixit, alleluia!

Queen of Heaven, rejoice, alleluia.
The Son whom you merited to bear, alleluia,
Has risen, as He said, alleluia!

This antiphon plays an ironic role in Pietro Mascagni’s one-act opera Cavalleria Rusticana, based on Giovanni Verga’s short story. As a church choir sings Regina Cæli off stage, a more pagan rite plays out in the piazza. Turridu Macca, torn between his loving mother Lucia and his vindictive former mistress Santuzza, must pay in blood for cuckolding his neighbor Alfio. He is a scapegoat whom the village sacrifices to Sicily’s endless cycle of death and rebirth. Such tragedies still occur, even on Easter Sunday. As always, the Black Madonna witnesses, grieves, and endures.

Anthony Di Renzo
Anthony Di Renzo
Anthony Di Renzo, a fugitive from advertising, teaches writing at Ithaca College. His books, such as Bitter Greens: Essays on Food, Politics, and History from the Imperial Kitchen (SUNY Press, 2010) and Trinàcria: A Tale of Bourbon Sicily (Guernica Editions, 2013), and the forthcoming After the Fair is Over, satirize the ongoing war between traditional Sicilian culture and American business and technology. Sicily usually loses. As Pasquino, Rome’s talking statue, Di Renzo contributes a monthly column to San Francisco's L’Italo-Americano. He lives in Ithaca, New York, an Old World man in a New Age town.

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  1. You’re welcome to share this picture, Anna Maria. But the real credit goes to Australian photographer Carla Coulson, who moved to Italy in August 2000 with just two suitcases and and an old camera. Three years later, she fell in love with architect Francesco Cataldi and moved to Paris, where she now lives and works. “My life for Italy has endured all these years,” she says, “and will last a lifetime.” That love is palpable in her beautiful book “Italian Joy” (Penguin Global 2007). Her forthcoming collection will be about Naples.

  2. Thanks for this history and for your reflections. I love that today we can see the influences in Sicily made by all the people that went through there. I find it an amazing place. It’s like a petri dish of history.

  3. Sicily is the Mediterranean’s greatest melting pot and continues to attract immigrants, from British academics at the University of Palermo to North African refugees on the island of Lampedusa. If we look into these newcomers’ eyes, Adele, we will see the face of the future. More and more, the so-called First World will resemble Sicily, a crossroads of transience and transformation. The death of the nation state will be the the birth of the global village. Sicily, long considered poor and backward, will rediscover and make use of its greatest historical resource: the diversity of its unique population.

    • “The death of the nation state will be the the birth of the global village”. This is so true Anthony. By the way: it’s amazing how you can paint with words … Even a comment is a master piece 🙂 – Kudos!!

  4. Such a transition won’t be easy, of course, Giovanni. Conflict and violence marked even Sicily’s Golden Age. But history suggests that people are often far more adaptable and tolerant than their social and cultural institutions. Hunger and desire compel us to cross borders and flout norms. No matter how hard law and religion strive to stamp out contradiction and ambiguity, life insists otherwise. What is love, after all, but the denial of irreconcilable differences? Foolish, I suppose, but much better than the cynical wisdom of realpolitik. Sicilians know better. The Vietnam War might have ended sooner if Kissinger and Le Duc Tho had spent a week in Taormina.

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