PIC INTERREG IIIA Greece - Italy 2000-2006 Axis 3.2 Project Code I3201060.



In historical terms, the female figure treated here has surely had a greater impact than any other in the world. Even today, her powerful appeal draws millions of pilgrims to the sanctuaries of Lourdes, Fatima, Medjugorje, Guadalupe and Czestochowa (to cite just a few of the Marian shrines), without considering all the other forms of local pilgrimage, limited to specific times and places. To discuss the value of the Virgin Mary outside a strictly religious or artistic context is not easy. But we are seeking here to focus more on the regional aspect: the Salento is an area of “high Marian density”, in which the mark of the Madonna is impressed on the territory and the traditions of the community, perpetuating itself over time. The Mother-figure par excellence, over the course of the centuries she has inspired cultural models and traditions poised between sacred and profane, conditioning the socio-economic expectations of small and very small rural settlements. The various representations of the Virgin have a timeless ecumenical value; cultural elements, local and otherwise, have coalesced around Her and become consolidated, evidence of the cohabitation of East and West, Greek and Latin rites, eastern and western art.

The reach of Marian devotion has been – and still is – enormous: the cult of the Madonna has assumed a social value that is unique, without distinction of class; entire communities identify with their particular Madonna. The baggage of legends based on Marian miracles forms the identity of a people, recognised by them and inseparable from them. It is the sentimental and affective story of a Mother and her children, the story of the redemption of oppressed communities, the story of salvation in the face of natural disasters, the story of justice on this earth. In other words, the collective history of life as it is truly lived.

A significant impulse in the development of Marian devotion came from the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, when Mary was officially given the title of Dei Genetrix or Theotokos, Mother of God. From that time the cult of the Virgin Mary spread rapidly. The building of churches, the widespread growth of iconography, the institution of liturgical festivities, the attribution of miracles and apparitions are all manifestations of a timeless value, thoroughly rooted in the history of communities. Mary was entrusted with the protection and custody of social groups and territories: there is not a single rural or urban area in the Salento that does not enjoy her patronage. Further evidence for this can be found in the pattern of place names, both ancient and modern, with official names often being used alongside other more markedly local ones.

In Lecce, the title of “civitas mariana”, which dates back to 1920, expressing the long-held propensity of the community, and the dedication of the Cathedral to Our Lady of the Assumption are reflected in the beauty and sophistication of the baroque sculpture of Piazza Duomo, a decidedly Marian location. The intercession of the Virgin Mary was even invoked in people’s testaments, and studies of such documents in the province of Terra d’Otranto in the 16th and 17th centuries confirm the centrality of the Marian element in popular culture.

The presence of the Virgin Mary, as an element binding East and West, is seen in the iconography of the underground shrines, closely linked to the morphology of the terrain, and not only. The hills of the Serre Salentine are home to a number of Marian shrines, ancient places of pilgrimage located along the “via della Perdonanza”, the Trail of Forgiveness, leading to S. Maria di Leuca.

The constant presence of the Virgin Mary in daily life also involves an awkward distinction between sacred and profane, between oral transmission and historical truth. Many Marian dedications and foundations have been the fruit of legends that the communities have come to understand as the literal truth. Tales of Marian effigies, apparitions and miracles lie at the base of popular fervour, which is actually not devoid of a certain pragmatism. A sort of quid pro quo, dictated by the precarious conditions of life of agricultural communities, which in this way also expressed the practical side of their religion, closely linked as it was to the earth.

The rites of Holy Week, in which Our Lady of Sorrows lives through the Passion of Christ, today still hold fundamental value for the communities of the Salento. The suffering of Mary is replicated in the suffering of ordinary people and their daily toil. But Good Friday is also a special day for the sharing of grief: perhaps it is precisely on this occasion that the deep connection between the divine and the human, between Mary as the Mother of Christ and of all her children, is most keenly felt. The sadness and the gathering of intimate friends evoked in Holy Week reach their apogee in the rituals of the processions in Gallipoli, an event that draws tourists and locals alike. In the heart of the Salento lies the Hellenophone island known as Grecìa Salentina, an area characterised by a significant “residue” of Greek culture which has been chosen as a case study.

Currently based around the towns of Calimera, Castrignano dei Greci, Corigliano d’Otranto, Martano, Martignano, Melpignano, Soleto, Sternatia and Zollino, at one time it covered a much more extensive area, in ancient times stretching across the peninsula in an uninterrupted swathe of territory from Otranto to Gallipoli. Here Greek and Latin rites and religions lived side by side, but religious rites were gradually Latinised, a process that was largely completed by the 16th century, when the more graecorum in the region was officially ended. With the passage of time the ancient devotion to the Madonna of Constantinople also waned, replaced by the figures of the Latin church. The title of Madonna delle Grazie, Our Lady of Graces, became especially popular: in Castrignano it has also acquired another name, “le Puzzelle”, a reference to the characteristic wells that are typical of the “area grika”, the Greek-speaking area. Local linguistic features are also reflected in Marian naming. Our Lady of Graces is also known as Our Lady of the Arcona, perhaps from Acona or Icona, the icon which, following the miraculous curing of a lame man, drew the blind, the lame and the mute from other nearby towns. In Martano, Our Lady of the Assumption is called E Maddònna u tristu cerù (Our Lady of the bad weather) because of the protection she gave the population on the occasion of the terrible Hurricane of November 19th, 1787. Marian devotion then is a complex phenomenon, whose many aspects are expressed in different ways. The Virgin Mary is not linked to any particular time or place. She has always existed, in every location. Thousands of years of history and political, economic and social transformation have not damaged the link between Her and her children. This is the real Marian mystery.

Through the Virgin Mary, the female personality has been a key player in history. The plan for the Salvation of mankind opened with the woman and with her consent. God made a “revolutionary” choice: He selected a woman just like any other, a poor girl from Nazareth, showing his preference for the meek and marginalised. This is the true meaning of the redemption of the weak and the recovery of the dignity of a gender for too long subservient. And this is the relevance of the Virgin Mary to the modern world, an idea that don Tonino Bello sought to publicise in his preaching, as seen in “la chiesa del grembiule”, “the church of the apron”, at the service of the less fortunate. The last 31 of his Marian “litanies”, written shortly before his death, compare the Virgin Mary to the marginalised, exploited and oppressed women of our own time. “Holy Mary, true woman, icon of the female world, you who have finally reached the Promised Land, help us to read history and to interpret life, after so much male chauvinism, with the strong and tender categories of femininity. In this world so flat, marked by the dominance of reason over intuition, of calculation over creativity, of power over tenderness, of physical strength over the gentle persuasion of the eyes, you are the image not only of the new woman, but of a new humanity, rescued from the mirages of false liberation”: this particular “litany” might be the manifesto of Marian modernity and earthly femininity, in which the Virgin Mary is the symbol of the “woman of our time”.

In the Salento, the Virgin Mary is a given, she is in the soul of each of us, in daily life, in family routines, in festivities, in the simple things. The Heavenly Madonna recalls our earthly mothers, workers and housewives, who have lived (and continue to live) a life of poverty, misery and exploitation. Tobacco workers, weavers, peasants, housewives – basically all women – have found in the Madonna guidance, comfort, serenity and support in their difficult daily struggle. Quite simply this is a wonderful relationship of exchange and love.


Community Initiative INTERREG III 2000-2006


PIC INTERREG IIIA Greece - Italy 2000-2006 Axis 3.2 Project Code I3201060

Co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund