1 September – The Memorial of Our Lady of Montevergine (c 401-460) – Patroness of Catalonia. This painting of Our Lady in her sanctuary, a Benedictine abbey, on Mount Partenio, 56 km East of Naples. In the charming medieval town of Mercogliano you catch the “funicular” or “cob train” that climbs a breath-taking slope in 7 minutes. (Or you can drive a winding road all the way up.) Open 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., the painting is on wood 460 x 230 cm and some say dates probably from around 1290 though according to local legend, the face was painted by St Luke the Evangelist and seems to actually stem from the 5th century.
This is one of quite a few Black Madonnas that are attributed to Luke the Evangelist. Tradition says he painted only the head of Mary, which was later fitted into the larger icon. The whole is considered a “Hodegetria” type of Madonna, i.e. “she who points/shows the way” or “the guide”, so called because her right hand points at Jesus as the way to salvation. While the Virgin of Montevergine isn’t actually in the classical Hodegetria pose, she is nonetheless known as the Hodegetria of Constantinople.
Tradition recounts that Eudocia (c. 401-460), the wife of the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II, brought Saint Luke’s original portrait of the Virgin from Palestine to Constantinople. There it was fitted into a very large icon of Mary and Jesus and greatly revered with weekly ceremonies described thus:
“Every Tuesday twenty men come to the church of Maria Hodegetria; they wear long red linen garments, covering up their heads like stalking clothes … there is a great procession and the men clad in red go one by one up to the icon; the one with whom the icon is pleased is able to take it up as if it weighed almost nothing. He places it on his shoulder and they go chanting out of the church to a great square, where the bearer of the icon walks with it from one side to the other, going fifty times around the square. When he sets it down others take it up in turn.” Another account says, as the bearers staggered around the crowd, the icon seemed to lurch towards onlookers, who were then considered blessed by the Virgin. Clergy touched pieces of cotton-wool to the icon and handed them out to the crowd. The image was double-sided, with the crucifixion of Jesus on the other side. This makes sense if it was painted for processions.”
While the Polish people claim the Hodegetria of Constantinople ended up at Czestochowa and the Russians believe it to be their “Hodegetria of Smolensk”, destroyed during the German occupation in 1941, the Italians maintain that their Mama of Montevergine is the original first Black Madonna painted by St Luke.
As it turns out they may almost be right. The original sacred image disappeared during the fall of Constantinople in 1453 but this one may actually be the oldest, still extant Western copy of it. At least that’s what Margherita Guarducci, an illustrious scholar of art history and archaeology claims. She investigated the famous “Slave Mama” of Montevergine in the 1990’s using newest technology. It turns out that the bust was painted over several times and previous analyses could only reach down to the layer that was created in the 13th century. But now Guarducci discovered another, deeper layer painted on linen burlap with a type of paint that was used in the 5th century.
But back to the capital of the East-Roman Empire, Italian traditions say that as the last Latin Emperor of Constantinople, Baldwin II, was escaping the besieged city in 1261, he took the head of the icon (the part attributed to Luke) with him. Later it came into the possession of the Angevin dynasty, the House of Anjou, who had it inserted again into a much larger image of Mary and the Christ child. Around the year 1300 they gave the icon to the sanctuary on Montevergine.
As so many Black Madonna sanctuaries, so this one too started out as a Pagan holy site dedicated to the goddess Cybele. Tradition says that in the early 11th century, when Paganism was still practised in remote parts of Europe, St William of Vercelli (1085-1142) Founder of the Congregation of Montevergine or “Willliamites”, the patron saint of Irpinia, decided to turn this mountain shrine to Cybele the Great Mother of the Gods, into a sanctuary of Mary the Most Holy Mother of God. He gathered a little band of monks around him and occupied the place for Christianity. The first real church was consecrated in 1124. It was destroyed and rebuilt several times. The current monastery, guest house and sanctuary date from between the 18th and 20th centuries. Architecturally they are not very interesting but the basilica is richly decorated and the whole place lies in breathtaking scenery. From the images it is difficult to grasp that the icon is quite large, with a height of over 3,65 meters and width of over 1,80 meters.
Why “Slave Mama”?
Why is this Black Madonna, along with some of her other Italian sisters, called Slave Mama? Because in the mind of old time Italians her dark complexion marked her as one of the serving class, the Mother of all Slaves. An old folk song recounts how the Madonna of Montevergine was ashamed that her dark skin made her look like a slave. It made her the ugliest of the “six sisters” (six famous Madonnas in the Campania region). So she hid her face on this mountain. But lo and behold, the song concludes, this Brown Mama turned out to be the most miraculous and hence the most beautiful of them all.
The local peasants love their Slave Mama more than any other Madonna because she is the mother of all those who are chained to hard work. She understands their plight. As another folk song says: “You alone lighten our chains, the chains to hard work, a thousand years of hard work and thousands of sweats”.
To the more politically minded (and there are many of those in Italy) the divine Slave Mama is also the mother of all who are oppressed or outcast.
Today, it is reported that over one-and-one-half million pilgrims yearly pay homage to Our Lady of Montevergine. The most popular day is Pentecost. There have been numerous miracles attributed to this portrait of the Mother of God and her Divine Son.