Madonna dell’Arco di Sant’Anastasia

Today is the Monday after Easter (lunedì in Albis, or informally, Pasquetta). This is the day we celebrate the feast of the Madonna dell’Arco in Sant’Anastasia.

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Madonna dell’Arco (Our Lady of the Arch)
Monday after Easter
Website
Sanctuary Website

In this video, you see several elements of the feast of the Madonna dell’Arco. You will notice the presence of the fujénti, a Neapolitan word which literally means “the ones who come”. These are people who have received miracles from the Madonna, who now make a pilgrimage to her sanctuary in honor of her feast day. They dress in all white and wear two bands: one blue and one red, in honor of the colors of the Madonna’s mantel. The fujénti are occasionally so overcome by the presence of their patron, that they will drop to the ground and convulse in front of her. A special police force, seen in green, maintains order during the festival.

In this video, you see two women dancing the tammurriata, a ritual dance performed in celebration of the various Black Madonnas of Campania. The tammurriata is led first by the voice, which improvises lyrics according to a vast traditional repertoire. The voice is followed by the drum, which matches lyrical patterns to a set of rhythms. The drumming then inspires the dancers, who add to the percussion both visually with their bodies as well as audibly with their castanets.

Prayer
English

Oh Pious Queen Dell’Arco,
provider of so many favors.
Your beautiful pupils bow
on your children who ask you mercy.
You are the only hope of the hearts
that, groaning, sigh to you.

Prayer
Original Italian

O Dell’Arco Pietosa Regina,
dispensiera di tanti favori.
Le pupille bellissime inchina,
sui tuoi figli che chiedon mercè.
Tu sei l’unica speme dei cuori
che gementi sospirano a te.

(Sing along here.)

 

Immaculate Conception

Mary, mystic Rose of purity, I rejoice with thee at the glorious triumph thou didst gain over the serpent by thy Immaculate Conception, in that then wast conceived without original sin. I thank and praise with my whole heart the Ever-blessed Trinity, who granted thee that glorious privilege and I pray thee to obtain for me courage to overcome every snare of the great enemy, and never to stain my soul with mortal sin. Be thou always mine aid, and enable me with thy protection to obtain the victory over all the enemies of man’s eternal welfare.

(From the Raccolta, a novena for the Immaculate Conception)

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Rubens, L’Immaculée Conception, 1628-1629

The Immaculate Conception is a Madonnine feast day which celebrates the belief that Mary was conceived without sin. It occurs on December 8, nine months before the feast of the Nativity of Mary on September 8. Like the feast of the Assumption, the Immaculate Conception has over time evolved into an emanation of the Madonna, so the words “Immaculate Conception” may refer to the feast or the Madonna herself. Statues of the Immaculate Conception were common enough in Italy, but rose to even greater prominence among Italian-American immigrants and their descendants due to their wider availability in the United States. We might hypothesize that the image of the Immaculate Conception in some cases conceals still greater mysteries of the Madonna and her many faces.

That being said, the Immaculate Conception is not without power of her own, and that power cannot be understood without contemplating Eve. The Madonna is often contrasted with Eve, the pair being the only two women born without sin.  We see this juxtaposition in the Ave Maris Stella, which describes the Madonna in her emanation as the Star of the Sea as “taking that sweet Ave, / which from Gabriel came, / peace confirm within us, / changing Eve’s name”. The heretics among us may see this as an opportunity to bring Eve into our personal practice through the image of the Immaculate Conception.

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santino or holy card for the Immaculate Conception.

Contained in the image of the Immaculate Conception we find the Serpent, often biting an apple, which may represent ancestral knowledge or entheogenic exploration. We also see the Madonna with her feet on the earth and her body standing upright in space, like the world tree which stretches from this world to the next. These are the themes which have come through strongly for me in devotional work with her: women’s mysteries of ovulation and birth, the channeling of ancestral knowledge, and the ritual use of entheogens.

These attributes may have been noticed by practitioners of African Diasporic Traditions, leading to some revealing syncretism. In Vodou, the Immaculate Conception is syncretized with Ayida-Weddo, the “Rainbow Serpent” of fertility. Many Lukumi houses syncretize the Immaculate Conception with the orisha Iroko, who is said to be a sacred tree which assisted Obatala’s descent from Heaven to Earth during the creation of the world.

You can honor the Immaculate Conception by performing her novena, which is traditionally said in the nine days leading up to her feast day, i.e. November 29 through December 7. There is also a 15-bead chaplet of the Immaculate Conception which is short enough to be prayed everyday.

Vestiges of ancient manners and customs (1832)

Vestiges of ancient manners and customs, discoverable in modern Italy and Sicily (1832) by the Rev. John James Blunt is a compilation of Rev. Blunt’s observations on the culture of the Mezzogiorno region compared with texts describing that of antiquity. While Rev. Blunt, an Englishman, tends toward a tone at once condescending and titillated, many of his observations are worth reading.

Chapters:

I. Introductory Remarks
II. On Saints
III. On the Virgin
IV. On the Festival of S. Agatha at Catania
V. On the Churches of Italy and Sicily
VI. On the Religious Services and Ceremonies of the Italians and Sicilians
VII. On the mendicant Monks
VIII. On sacred Dramas
IX. On the Dramatic Nature of the Ceremonies of the Church of Italy
X. On Charms
XI. On the Burial of the Dead
XII. On the Agriculture of Italy
XIII. On the Towns, Houses, Utensils, &c. Of the Italians and Sicilians
XIV. On the Ordinary Habits, Food, and Dress, of the Italians and Sicilians
XV. Miscellaneous Coincidences of Character between the ancient and modern Italians

It is available through the grace of archive.org for reading and download here.

Women’s prominence in devotion

“Women outnumbered men in the devotion since the time of the earliest available documents, although they were not included in its organizational life. They have always been the primary economic support of the devotion. With only about two exceptions, women wrote in to report the graces granted by the Madonna even when the grace had been bestowed on a man. Women were also the central figures in the life of the church….

“Women felt a profound sense of identity and a special closeness to the Madonna, as they reveal in their letters to her requesting graces or thanking her for favors granted. When their sufferings as mothers and wives were most intense, as these women tell their stories, when they felt that no one else could understand their particular agonies, they turned to the one who long ago had appealed to the masses of Europe because of her evident participation in humanity’s trials. The mothers and grandmothers of the women of Italian Harlem had contributed to the evolution and popularity of this image, which now found an urban restatement. The Madonna to whom these women were so attached was not a distant, asexual figure, but a woman like themselves who had suffered for and with her child. Her power was located precisely in those areas where the power of Italian women, in all its complexity, was located: the domus. Like Italian women, the Madonna was expected to hold families together. She was also asked to forgive and to protect, suggesting a complex and considerable power–and one that could be wielded capriciously.”

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, pp. 205-206.

Selected quotes from dark mother

“Healing black madonnas are associated with wooded areas, water (the sea, a lake, a river, a fountain), grottoes and caves, and with the subterranean, often volcanic, chthonic earth.” (140)

“Deborah Rose went to France in search of black madonnas; afterward, she wrote, ‘the last thing I expected was to re-enter Catholicism, the religion of my childhood.’ She found that ‘devotions of the catholic faithful were keeping alive a reverence for the mother that I suspected was much older than that to the Christian Mary.’ Her twenty five years of work in holistic health care have made her ‘a firm believer in body memories and cellular consciousness. On an individual, and I believe on a collective level, the body remembers the past. And the oldest memory is of darkness as the source and the beginning. The dark mother is the original mother.'” (149)

“Lucia’s popular meaning is caught at Canicattini Bagni, paleolithic site in Sicily, where Lucia is sought for eye maladies connected with loss of wisdom. In italian popular culture, loss of wisdom means loss of hindsight, or memory of the past, and loss of vision, or faith in the future.” (171-172)

“In popular themes underlying political traditions of the left in Italy, the black of anarchism is understood as fidelity of subordinated peoples to the truth of the earth.” (172)

Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, dark mother: african origins and godmothers

The sense-world of the festa

“The festa of the Madonna of Mount Carmel recreated the primary and traditional environments of the Italians–the preverbal environment, on the one hand, and the remembered environment of Italy, on the other–in the presence of a quasi-omnipotent mother who healed or did not heal, depending on the behavior of the individual. For the older immigrants and their Italian-born children, the sense world of the festa was the sense world of their southern Italian childhoods; for the later generations in East Harlem, the sense world of the festa recalled the smells, sounds, and tastes of life in the domus. In both cases, the festa and the domus, the sense world was shaped and presided over by a powerful woman. The religious experience of July 16 had the power to evoke memories that were extraordinarily basic: the people seemed to be returning not only to their paese but, more profoundly, to their mothers. The festa was a time of regression, in other words, and the smells, tastes, and sounds of it helped to precipitate and sustain this regression. The devotion summoned people into the sacral domus and surrounded them with familiar tastes, smells, sounds, colors, and textures; in this way, in the presence of their ‘mamma,’ the people returned to the world in which they had first learned, from their mothers, what reality was, what was good and what bad, what their basic values were and the values of their community. The festa and the long-passed intimate moments of moral formation smelled, tasted, and sounded the same.” [emphasis added]

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, pp. 171-172.

Journey to la festa

“The devotion to the Madonna of 115th Street met the emotional and moral needs of a population that had emigrated. In the earliest period, from its founding to the time of Dalia’s pastorate, which paralleled the first period of Italian immigration to the closing of the gates, when men were coming alone to New York, participation in the cult assuaged the complicated guilt of the immigrants. The devotion allowed men to be faithful to a woman on these shores as a sign of their faithfulness to the women they had left in Italy. Attendance at their mother’s house located the men in the familial strategy of immigration: they had come because of their families and they could remember and acknowledge this in the devotion. In the earliest writings extant at the shrine, the church is identified strongly as ‘mamma’s house,’ and la Madonna is called by the familiar and childlike nostra mamma’. By initiating and attending the devotion to the Madonna of 115th Street, the men were declaring their faithfulness not only to their women but also to the moral and cultural system signified and dominated by women. The dimly glowing vigil lights which the earliest male immigrants kept burning in their rooms before images of the Madonna and the saints recalled the men to their moral culture: each night, with the sound of the elevated train coming in through the open windows, the noise of the street and the glowing of the gas factory’s stacks, the red lamps summoned the men to be faithful to the values of their people. The devotion and the festa confirmed this and allowed the men to act out their faithfulness.

…There is a way in which the entire festa recapitulated the experience of immigration. The annual celebration also involved a journey… Al of my informants stressed the fact that faithful came from ‘all over’ to the annual celebration, and they particularly wanted to call to my attention long trips that involved crossing water–from Brooklyn, Staten Island, New Jersey; in each case, it was emphasized that a bridge had to be crossed or a boat taken but that this did not deter the faithful.

“By the principle of ‘inverted magnitudes,’ the signification of great realities or events by the smallest symbols or objects, the difficulties encountered in getting to the shrine opened out in meaning for the immigrants and played out again the movement of their migration, ending, as we were told their migration had ended, at their mother’s feet. The younger generations were invited to share in a very physical way the central event of their parents’ histories both by participating in the annual procession as children and by undertaking their long journeys back to Harlem for the devotion in later years.”

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, pp. 163-165.