Applying domus-logic to holy figures

“Holy figures were also celebrated by the people for their place in the domus: the most cherished and important Catholic figures in Italian Harlem were sacred figures in domus relationships. The Madonna held her infant in her arms; Saints Cosmos and Damian were brothers who died together; Saint Ann was loved as the mother of the Madonna. Covello discovered that southern Italians conceptualized the Trinity as the Holy Family, with Sant’Anna, Jesus’ nonna (Grandmohter), always in the background as an additional figure.”

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, p. 86.


Being cristiano

“The meaning of the words good and bad were determined by the domus. The immigrants in Italian Harlem spoke of their deepest and most fundamental aspiration as the desire to be ‘Christians.’ (The opposite of living like a Christian was to live like a Turk.) A Christian was defined as a person rooted in and responsible to the domus. One woman explained the word to her children: ‘When you all grow up and are earning money and are married, we must buy or build a house which will hold our whole family together. That’s the only way to live like Christians. The American way is no good at all for the children to do as they please and the parents don’t care.’ Another young woman held out as an example of Christian living the insistence of a young woman that an importuning suitor come and meet her family before she allowed him to walk her home from work. The old woman emphasized her point: ‘He came three times and then both families got together to arrange for the engagement. They were ready to be married when the war came along. This girl will marry and be blessed because she revered her parents and did the right thing. I call that living like a ‘cristiano’ not behaving like a Turk.’ A Christian had a domus sensibility; he or she was ready to sacrifice without question for the good of the domus.”

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, p. 86.

Blood ties

“According to the values of the domus-centered society, there were no individuals in Italian Harlem, only people who were part of a domus. Italians had a very intimate sense of the way a person was formed in and according to the values of the domus. Many in the first generation believed that a mother’s blood was mixed in with the milk her child suckled. This blood-sharing was thought to be the essential foundation of personal identity and morality. ‘Blood’ was the symbol of this deepest intimacy: it was the spiritual expression of value placed on family solidarity and loyalty in the domus-centered society.

“Individuals were warned that to violate the blood bonding of the domus meant disaster. There were a number of levels to this blood unity. It referred, first of all, to the blood-bond existing between mother and child, the essential blood tie; it also meant the special bonds that exist among siblings: the brother-sister relationship or the brother-brother relationship was thought to be closer than the father-son or father-daughter relationship because brother and sisters were of the same blood, had suckled their mother’s blood. But a blood-bond was also thought to exist among Italians. According to one of Covello’s sources: ‘Italians must marry Italians. They may be Sicilian, Calabresi, Neapolitans–but they have the same blood. They belong to the same nation. Hungarians should marry Hungarians. Jews marry Jews. Everyone in his blood.’ If one married outside the blood, one might not be able to incorporate his or her children into the domus and this meant that the blood violator and his or her offspring would be doomed to living like ‘animals.'”

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, p. 82.

Penitence as gratitude

“At the very rear of the procession walked the penitents. All of them walked barefoot; some crawled along their hands and knees; many had been walking all night. For the most part, it was the women who walked barefoot on the searing pavement, though one of my informants told me that men would do this if their wives insisted. In his words, ‘You do that, or you don’t get any food.’ Women bore huge and very heavy altars of candles arranged in tiered circles (‘like a wedding cake,’ one of my East Harlem sources told me) and balanced on their heads with the poise that had enabled them and their mothers to carry jugs of water and loaves of bread on their heads in southern Italy. Sometimes white ribbons extended out from the tiered candles and were held by little girls in white communion outfits. Some of the people in the rear had disheveled hair and bloodied faces, and women of all ages walked with their hair undone. Some people wore special robes–white robes with a blue sash like Mary’s or Franciscan-style brown robes knotted at the waist with a cord; they had promised to wear these robes during the procession, though some had promised to wear their abitini for several months, or even a year. Although the rear of the procession was the area designated for these practices, a penitential motif characterized the entire procession and, indeed, the entire day.

“This behavior was governed by the vows people made to la Madonna. The seriousness with which these promises were made and kept simply cannot be overemphasized. All my East Harlem sources told me, matter-of-factly, that people did all this, that they came to East Harlem–and kept coming even when Italians grew frightened of Spanish Harlem and knew that the neighborhood was no longer theirs–because they had made a vow. One of my sources described the promise like this:

You see, these elderly women would make a vow, you know, they would pray for something, say, if I ever get what I’m praying for… you know, a son was sick or someone had died [at this point, another former East Harlem resident interjected, ‘Like some kind of a penance’], and they would amke a vow… they say, maybe for five Mount Carmels we would march with th eprocession without shoes. In other words, do some sort of a penance to repay for the good that they’d gotten.

“In later years, as the older generation passed away or became too sick to come to the festa, their children came and kept their promises for them.”

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, pp. 9-10.

Devotional candles

“Vendors of religious articles set up booths along the sidewalks, competing for business with the thriving local trade in religious goods. The booths were filled with wax replicas of internal human organs and with models of human limbs and heads. Someone who had been healed–or hoped to be healed–by the Madonna of headaches or arthritis would carry wax models of the afflicted limbs or head, painted to make them look realistic, in the big procession. The devout could also buy little wax statues of infants. Charms to ward off the evil eye, such as little horns to wear around the neck and little red hunchbacks, were sold alongside the holy cards, statues of Jesus, Mary, and the saints, and the wax body parts.

“The most sought-after items were the big and enormously heavy candles that the faithful bought, carried all through the blistering July procession, and then donated to the church. There was a wax factory at 431 East 115th Street, and candles were available at several stores on the block near the church. According to one of my informants: ‘They sold candles. They did a tremendous business in candles for years.’ In the June 1929 issue of the parish bulletin, in time for that year’s celebration, Nicola Sabatini, who owned a religious articles shop at the prime location of 410 East 115 Street, advertised: ‘The faithful who need candles of any size, votive articles of wax and silver, and other religious articles can get them here directly at reasonable prices and made to their specifications.’ The weights of the candles chosen by the people corresponded to the seriousness of the grace they were asking, and this was carefully specified in the vows made to the Madonna. A bad problem or a great hope required an especially heavy candle and weights could reach fifty or sixty pounds or more. Sometimes the candles weighed as much as the person for whom prayers and sacrifices were being offered. In 1923, for example, Giuseppe Caparo, sixty-nine years old, who had recently fallen from the fifth floor of a building without hurting himself, offered the Madonna a candle weighing as much as he did, 185 pounds. If, as often happened, the candles were too long or two heavy to be carried by one person, other family members and friends would share the burden.”

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950, pp. 3-4.

Cult of Heroes vs. Cult of Saints

“The rise of the Christian cult of saints took place in the great cemeteries that lay outside the cities of the Roman world: and, as for the handling of dead bodies, the Christian cult of saints rapidly came to involve the digging up, the moving, the dismemberment–quite apart from much avid touching and kissing–of the bones of the dead, and, frequently, the placing of these in areas from which the dead had once been excluded. …Even when confined to their proper place, the areas of the dead, normative public worship and the tombs of the dead were made to coincide in a manner and with a frequency for which the pagan and Jewish imagination had made little provision.

“To idealize the dead seemed natural enough to men in Hellenistic and Roman times. Even to offer some form of worship to the deceased, whether as a family or as part of a public cult in the case of exceptional dead persons, such as heroes or emperors, was common, if kept within strictly defined limits. Thus, the practice of ‘heroization,’ especially of private cult offered by the family to the deceased as a ‘hero’ in a specially constructed grave house, has been invoked to explain some of the architectural and artistic problems of the early Christian memoria. But after that, even the analogy of the cult of the hero breaks down. For the position of the hero had been delimited by a very ancient map of the boundaries between those beings who had been touched by the taint of human death and those who had not: the forms of cult for heroes and for the immortal gods tended to be kept apart. Above all. what appears to be almost totally absent from pagan belief about the role of the heroes is the insistence of all Christian writers that the martyrs, precisely because they had died as human beings, enjoyed close intimacy with God. Their intimacy with god was the sine qua non of their ability to intercede for and, so, to protect their fellow mortals. The martyr was the ‘friend of God.’ He was an intercessor in a way which the hero could never have been. …

“We can chart the rise to prominence of the Christian church most faithfully by listening to pagan reactions to the cult of martyrs. For the progress of this cult spelled out for pagans a slow and horrid crumbling of ancient barriers… In attacking the cult of saints, Justinian the Apostate mentions the cult as a novelty for which there was no warrant in the gospels; but the full weight of his religious abhorrence comes to bear on the relation between the living and the corpses of the dead that was implied in the Christian practice: ‘You keep adding many corpses newly dead to the corpse of long ago. You have filled the whole world with tombs and sepulchres.’ He turned against the cult practiced at the tombs of the saints all the repugnance expressed by the Old Testament prophets for those who haunted tombs and burial caves for sinister purposes of sorcery and divination.”

Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints, pp. 5-7


Saint Lucy in Sicily

Santa Lucia
(13 Dicembre)

Una breve leggenduola siciliana dice che G. C. andando ima volta pel mondo incontrò S. Lncia seduta a piangere per cagion d’un bruscolo che entratole negli occhi non la facea più vedere. G. G. le comandò di an- dare nel suo giardino, raccogliere verbena e finocchi da lui piantati, inaffiati e calpestati: che, se era bruscolo andrebbe al bosco ; se pietra, a mare; se sangue, scioglierebbesi :

Santa Lucia
Supra un màrmuru chi ciliari eia.
Vinni a passari nostra Signuri Gesù Cristu :

— ” Chi hai, Santa Lucia, chi chianci ? “
— ” Chi vogghiu a viri, patri maistusu !
M’ ha calata ‘na rosca all’ occhi ;
Nun pozzu vidiri, nè guardari. “

— ” Va’ a lu mè jardinu,
Pigghia birbina e finocchiu.
Cu li me’ manu li chiantai,
Cu la me vucca l’ abbivirai,
Cu li me’ pedi li scarpisai :
S’ è frasca va a lu voscu,

 S’ è petra va a mari,
S’ è sangii squagghirà.
Ora questa leggenduola in forma eli orazione sogliono recitare sopra i malati di occhi certi campagnuoli che pretendono avere o si presume che abbiano facoltà di guarire o far guarire dalla Santa qualunque ofcfcalmia. S. Lucia è la santa protettrice degli occhi , patrona di Siracusa, ove, sia detto di passaggio, tanto nelle donne quanto ne’ quadri di pittori siracusani ho visto occhi veramente belli. Ad essa si raccomandano coloro che temono mal d’occhi.; ‘ad essa fan voti e vanno ad of- ferire occhi di cera coloro che soffrono di quel prezioso senso. In Partinico gli ot tal mici vanno a lavarsi gli oc- chi alla pila maggiore dell’ acqua santa della Madrice. In Mentì si ha grande fede ad una statua di questa Santa confinata non so in quale angolo della sagrestia; perchè all’altra migliore della cappella non si ha molta fede. Dappertutto chi si vota a S. Lucia veste il color verde sacro a lei, sia per sempre, sia per un abito sola- mente, in qualche giorno della settimana. Altri colori son sacri quale ad una, quale ad un’altra santa: e vi ha il turchino con guarnitura nera all’Addolorata, il celeste guarnito col bianco all’Immacolata, il marrone col bianco alla Madonna del Carmelo, il violaceo con guarnitura gialla a S. Anna, il nero con guarnitura tur- china a S. Rosalia. Questi abiti si chiamano vuti, voti; e perciò si ha un vutu di S. Lucia, un vulu di la Mairi S. Anna e via discorrendo. Tra’ santi una eccezione si fa per S. Francesco di Paola, a cui si vota anche un abito alluri latti e cafè, cioè marrone guarnito in nero. Ogni voto ha con se un cingolo suo proprio.
Il perchè di questa particolare facoltà della Santa è dato da Alfonso Vigliega, che nel suo Flos Sanctorum, a proposito di S. Lucia, scrive « che la Santa comune- mente è tenuta per avvocata della -vista perchè essen- dosi invaghito un giovane de’ suoi occhi e sollecitandola a corrispondenza, ella riflettendo alla dottrina del suo a- mantissimo Salvadore, che insegnò: si oculus tuus dexter scandalizel te , ente eum et projiee abs te (Matth. V, 29), comprendendo il documento secondo il senso letterale, si cavò gli occhi, e mandolli all’importuno giovane in un piatto : benché poi il Signore li restituisse più belli alla Santa. » Gita egli per questa opinione Filippo da Ber- gamo nel libro delle donne illustri, e Giovanni Maldo- nalo ; e stima s’ingannino coloro che attribuiscono il fatto ad altra santa donzella ; quindi aggiunge , che è <( avvocatadegliocchi,edadipintorisirappresentacon un piatto nelle mani con due occhi in esso. » La stessa opinione è seguita da Mariano Perrello nella Vita di S. Lucia. « Ma a dirne il vero, osserva il Mongitore, l’inganno é del Vigliega; poiché in’ niuno degli antichi pas- sionari, in ninno scrittore antico della sua vita si legge tal fatto della nostra S. Lucia; onde stimano un grosso abbaglio a lei attribuirlo; ed è impugnata tal opinione dal P. Ottavio Gaetani, i da Teotìlo Rainaud * e dal Sar- nelli. 3 e ben mostrano essere accaduto ciò ad una santa vergine fiorita più secoli dappoi… sicché il fatto fu ma- lamente appiccato alla nostra Santa, che è invocata per la luce degli occhi in riguardo al suo nome Lucia ».

In Palermo e in quasi tutta Sicilia il dì 13 dicembre non si mangia pane, almeno da quella gente che riconosce una facoltà non comune in questa santa vergine, se- condo la leggenda, accecata da un imperatore romano, alle cui malsane voglie non cedette. Ma in compenso e come per penitenza si mangiano legumi, verdure, pattona ed altre cose simili, sole o messe insieme. I venditori di’ flanelle cominciano questa loro merce qualche settimana prima tanto per acquistar dei clienti (parrucciani); poi in quel giorno parano le loro botteghe a festa con pa- nelie ben grosse, pendenti attorno all’uscio o distese so- pra bianche tovaglie. Sono le panelle come una pattona di farina di ceci; ricevono varie forme, e il nome di pi- sci-panelli, perché ab antico hanno la figura di pesci. Si mangia anche caccia, grano immollato e cotto con altri legumi o in acqua semplice o in latte : pasta che si mangiava e si mangia ancora in Egitto, e si chiama  Kesc. In Naro non saprebbe lasciarsi passare il giorno senza gustare qualche melarancia o limone o cedro.
E qui una digressione sulla cuccia.
Fu detto che, come presso gli antichi agli 11 novembre si guastava il mosto appena spremuto, così è veri- simile che gli antichi stessi avessero, appena raccoltolo nell’aia, cotto il frumento e mangiato di esso come di novello cibo; del qual uso sembra tutt’ora perdurai’ la memoria in quei luoghi di Sicilia dove la cuccia, cioè il frumento .lesso, viene mangiato nel mese di luglio che e appunto il mese di sua raccolta,., costumanza di varie città orientali dell’ isola. 11 sac. Gius. Benincasa da Termini, che forse trae questa notizia da quel mons. Pompeo Sarnelli di Biseglia che scrisse la Posillecheata, dà una tradizione popolare giunta lino a lui, cioè « ch’essendo accaduta nel dì XIII dicembre maravigliosa pioggia di frumento, se ne rinnovi ogni anno la rimembranza nel divisato giorno dedicato per avventura a S. Lucia v. e m. col mangiarlo cotto in acqua 8 . » Ma egli stesso non lascia di notare che non tutta la Sicilia mangia per quel giorno la cuccia, essendovi paesi che la mangiano e dispensano nel giorno de’ morti (2 nov.) come Girgenti, Palazzo Adriano, Santa Caterina ecc., altri nel giorno di Sant’Anna (26 luglio), altri per S. Niccolò vescovo (6 ciic.) o pel suo ottavario (e perciò il 13, festa di Santa Lucia) come Mezzoiuso e Palazzo Adriano, o per S. Biagio vescovo (3 febbr.) come Gastronovo, Montalbano ecc. o per la natività di Maria (8 sett.) come Termini o per S. Teodoro (17 febbr.) come i Greci Albanesi in generale, i quali, secondo il cennato scrittore terni itano, avrebbero portato a noi l’uso della cuccia e della distribuzione di essa a’ poveri verso la fine del sec. XIV. Ma il grano bollito è un cibo molto naturale e primitivo, e il riportarne la introduzione tra noi al sec. XIV, è un errore non dico storico ma etno- grafico de’ più grossolani.
E per tornare alla cucina del 13 dicembre: si mangia di tutta questa robaccia e, avvenga quel che vuole avvenire , la penitenza è fatta. Purché non si mangi farina di frumento , si è certi di aver conservati gli occhi; v- Ma, e il frumento non è la materia prima della farina? Sì, ma non è farina: la farina entra nel pane* nella pasta ecc., e pane e pasta non se ne mangia; per quella vi sono le panelle, e per questa il riso: per tutto v’è legumi, castagne lessate, ricotta. Tra’ pezzi di pane minuto che si fanno in famiglia non suòle dimenticarsene niai uno in forma d’occhiali, che prende il nome Succhiali di S. Lucia, e che si mangia per divozione o si dà a’ poveri 2 Graziosa a vedersi è la festa delle quaglie che sì fa in Siracusa in Galen di Maggio, come dissero i nostri antichi e come dicesi tuttora in qualcuno de’ nostri paesi. Nel piano della cattedrale sorge il Monastero di Santa Lucia, e le monacelle più giovani, avvenenti ragazze come quasi tutte le. siracusane, vestite di bianco, per- chè dell’ordine cisterciense, affacciano al vasto loggiato del Monastero, e da li buttano nella immensa folla plau- dente centinaia di quaglie , di colombe , di tortore, di uccelli d’ogni specie: e gli spettatori a disputarseli, ad acchiapparli coi cappelli, coi fazzoletti. Molti uccelli sfuggon volando, gli altri vengono ammaccati o uccisi.
L’uso richiama a quello del giorno delia Pentecoste in alcune chiese; e ci fa ricordare del colombo, che, in non so qua! monastero di Mineo, si adorna di nastri, margheritine e di orpelli, e asperso di spirito, durante la messa cantata si lascia volare dopo d’avergli appic- cato il fuoco alle penne ; sì che volando per la chiesa e bruciando, si prende a simbolo dello Spirito Santo.
La notte di S. Lucia è la più lunga dell’anno:

Sante Lucia, .
La echio longa Buttata chi cci sia,

proverbio che dev’essere molto antico, perchè valea solo prima del calendario Gregoriano, in cui S. Lucia cadeva il 25 dicembre.
In Catania si dice proverbialmente Timpesta di S. Lucia una tempesta avvenuta un giorno diS, Lucia della prima metà del settecento, la quale recò molti danni.

Giuseppe Pitre, Spettacoli e Feste.