Madonna della madia’s arrival starts the Christmas season in Monopoli
By PAMELA HASTEROK with photos by DON LINDLEY
A raft carrying a copy of the cathedral’s precious 12th Century painting of Madonna della Madia, Monopoli’s patron and protector, to shore on a chilly December day.
What could possibly persuade Don and me to rouse ourselves at 3:45 a.m. on a chilly December day? The impending arrival of the Madonna della Madia, Monopoli’s patron and protector — that, and the booming wake- up call of fireworks fired from the port.
We hurried to meet friends and marveled as we were joined by priests in white robes and colorful capes, children bundled in parkas and thousands of sleepy Monopolitanis excited to celebrate the legend of Mary’s miracle in their town. The seawalls and port roads were already lined with the faithful in the damp morning dark. Meanwhile, the raft carrying a copy of the cathedral’s precious 12th Century painting of the madonna and child waited to come ashore.
It seems that in 1107 the Catholic bishop ran out of money to complete the vaulted roof a new cathedral. But Mary appeared three times in the dreams of Mercurio, a devout congregant, telling him the beams were waiting at the port. The bishop refused to believe the miracle. Finally, at Mercurio’s urging the bishop went to the port and there it was: a raft made of wooden planks suitable for the roof. Mary left a calling card, too — a delicate Byzantine-style portrait of virgin and baby.
Our Monopolitani friends tend not to be overly religious, but they cherish the holidays associated with Catholicism primarily as a social rite and none more so than this one. So even as the winds picked up off the sea and the priest said yet another prayer and the raft holding the madonna didn’t budge, we waited in good cheer and excitement.
“People should pray,” our friend Maria said, “but everyone chats.”
The beginning of a spectacular show of fireworks silenced us, the final heralding of Mary’s arrival. And then swiftly, (the port isn’t that big) the raft and an entourage of brightly lit fishing boats approached the ramp where religious and political dignitaries waited. Three times it docked and three times it pulled away, recalling the bishop’s initial rejection.
Once lifted ashore, you could feel the magic of the artwork, even just a copy, with it’s portrayal of a modest madonna rendered in golden hues and a stern-faced baby, ready to confront the challenges of a corrupt world. Sturdy men lifted the icon onto carrying poles and began the predawn trek to the cathedral, followed by congregants and choir boys, priests and policemen.
We headed for our favorite cafe, safe in the knowledge that Mary would soon be back where she belonged in the medieval cathedral, ever Monopoli’s protector.