Updated: Jun 18, 2022
A boy from Lombardy wanders into a river and falls in. His parents are desperate to locate him. Later he is found by his family standing unharmed on a rock in the river. He is rescued and brought home, when he points to a painting of the Madonna in the home and reports he recognizes who saved him. It was the Madonna, the exact same one in the painting. She saved him, he says, he saw her guide him to safety on the rock. This incident is published in a 1551 book on miracles.
Is the story a legend or an unexplainable phenomenon? Sacred images that protect, cry, or heal – a hoax or the real thing? Is the image of a Madonna that averts a disaster from happening evidence of the sacred or folklore? Miraculous images, especially of the Madonna and baby Jesus, are plentiful in Italy.
There are intriguing stories behind miraculous images, and some images are still venerated today. I’ll explore four examples, two well-known and documented in Tuscany, and two lesser known examples, one in Umbria and one in the South Tyrol. They are worlds apart in social and cultural history but share a common bond through belief in miraculous images.
The Madonna of the Grain
Orsanmichele is an odd square shaped building right in the heart of old Florence. The exterior looks formidable and there are niches with statues representing patron saints of various guilds. It’s not exactly a church, and not a palace. It’s part shrine and part civic building. In the fourteenth century it functioned as a grain market until 1382, then it became a shrine due to the miraculous images inside. The unlikely bed fellows of religious imagery, grain, and flour co-existed in a market regulated by the commune.
The Madonna of Orsanmichele is the oldest image cult in Florence, venerated from about 1292 until the early twenty-first century. It is also the most ornate and highly finished. The Madonna protected and blessed the commercial activities critical to Florence and its territories. It wasn’t the only miraculous image in Orsanmichele (Ore-san-me-KEL-lay), but the most acclaimed. The Madonna, on a throne, with child, and surrounded by saints and/or angels, was a standard representation for centuries. Many images were reproduced or made in a similar style and composition, adored, and purportedly responsible for miracles.
The miracles associated with the Madonna of Orsanmichele relate to harvest, weather, and plague. When she wasn’t needed, the image was veiled in expensive silk and fabric with a pulley system to obscure the image or reveal it. The unveiling was a dramatic event. The unveiling was regulated during peaceful times, on holy days, or Sundays.
The Madonna image was painted by Bernardo Daddi in 1347 and is an impressive eight foot by six foot poplar panel painted with tempera. However, his representation was the last of many Madonnas for Orsanmichele. The others were damaged, lost in fires, ruined due to civic unrest, and they were quickly replaced. As for Daddi, he died in the devastating 1348 plague that killed a substantial population of Florence. The elaborate tabernacle was built to house the panel in 1352-59 by Andrea Orcagna who made 117 marble reliefs depicting the life of the Virgin. The tabernacle is over the top in decoration, but also signifies the wealth of the patrons, a lay confraternity responsible for the upkeep, veiling, unveiling, and security of the image. The thirty-six-foot-tall Orsanmichele tabernacle set the template for future representations.
The Madonna that Brought Rain
Marian image cults flourished in Italy during the Renaissance. Before devotion to plague saints such as St. Sebastian or Roch, Mary was the go-to for comfort, safety, moral guidance, as well as protection for the home, city, and family. From 1200s well into the 1500s Marian miracles and images flourished.
Miraculous images often have a deep local connection based on the long-held belief in religious phenomenon and the protection they offer. The images associated with miracles are often considered by artistic standards to be of mediocre quality, often by more obscure artists. It is rare a well-known painting is responsible for miracles. And most miracles did not happen in the presence of the image, but after venerating it for some time or invoking it in times of need. For centuries these images were regarded with indifference and inferiority by art historians. A renewed interest in social history has shed new light on the cultural and political importance of miraculous images.
The Madonna of Impruneta allegedly was responsible for many miracles, and the foundation legends associated with the image requires some real imagination. Impruneta is a twenty-five-minute drive south from the heart of Florence, and if you travel any further south, you will find yourself in the celebrated Chianti country. Known for its terracotta made from clay soil, Impruneta is home to a Madonna painting which became a vital connection between the countryside and Florence, especially in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries under the rule of the Medici.
There are a number of improbable origins of the painting. The oldest version is that St. Luke, the gospel writer, painted it himself. This made the painting very exceptional and exclusive. How Luke might have come across the materials to paint in tempera was not explained. The most common story is that the painting was found buried, completed, and untouched, by oxen. The citizens were trying to build a church in their town when each and every night whatever foundation they had laid was undone. They took this to be a sign from God that this was not the right place for the church and through prayer, they hitched oxen together carrying the building stones to another location. When the oxen stopped at a particular location, a voice called out, and they began digging and found the painting. A church was built at this location. Animals were thought to be non-rationale and were frequently used to aid in the discovery of holy locations, called a locus sanctus. Animals were often part of foundation stories for miraculous images.
The painting was first mentioned as a cult image in 1330. In 1354, after a period of drought that threatened the spring harvest, the image was called to Florence in a great procession. Saints relics were displayed, candles lit, and church bells rung as the panel was taken through the streets of Florence to the Baptistery, then to San Minato del Monte, then back to Impruneta. This is not a short distance to process, more like a marathon. Within a few days a gentle rain began to fall, and it rained for a week. This event secured her position as a weather generating image.
The ruling Medici leveraged the image during their reign to protect the city and justify their political position. They called the image to the city every few years, or during a crisis, at which time elaborate processions occurred, including displaying the head of St. Zenobius, patron saint of Florence. In the 1450s an elaborate tabernacle was constructed to house the image in the Impruneta church of Santa Maria.
Unfortunately, not much of the original paint remains, only about 10 percent. After the cult images and the Medici fell out of favor, the Madonna was neglected. The current panel is mostly the result of the Englishman Ignatius Hugford who painted over the image in the mid 1700s. We don’t know who the original artist or artists were, but the panel dates to 1100-1200. And in 1944, during World War II, the church was bombed. The tabernacle was greatly damaged, but not the panel. The image is still venerated today.
The Sweating Madonna
Outside of Acqualoreto, a small Umbrian town 30 kilometers from Orvieto, the Italians traditionally gather the first Sunday after Easter to celebrate Pasquarella (little Easter). Townspeople walk down a steep valley near the Tiber River, to celebrate with food and congregate at the small roughhewn church, the Santuario della Madonna della Pasquarella (Sanctuary of the Madonna of Little Easter). The Sanctuary is a small speck of a building in a lush green rocky hillside.
Inside the small and simple church is a faded fresco of the Adoration of the Magi. Mary is seated with the Christ Child while the three kings bring gifts. Joseph stands besides her in a barn-like setting with a landscape depicted to the right. The church is hewn out of rock, which is part of a deep gorge. It’s rough terrain and unless you would be looking specifically for this sanctuary, or guided by a local, you would most likely never find it. The fresco is damaged and not particularly artistically noteworthy. People crowd into the small piazza outside the sanctuary. Stands along the route sell dried fruit, nuts, and porchetta sandwiches, juicy pork on crunchy bread for a few Euro. The atmosphere is festive.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit the sanctuary. I was told about the festival by a local. As I approached the church the atmosphere turned more serious and intense. People crowded the narrow doorway with noisy chatter. I was the only non-Italian and appreciated experiencing a local cultural tradition. Italians from neighboring towns crowded the entrance to the small church. They brought articles of clothing, necklaces, watches, scarves or other personal items to a church official who placed the item on a long pole, then brought the item to the image of the Virgin Mary. The article was moved in a circular fashion as close as possible to Mary. The item was returned to the faithful with much gratitude and prayers of thanks.
Mary’s image is considered to have mystical power. Touching an item to the image transmits the miraculous possibilities and healing back to the faithful. This is different from relics, which usually do not have miraculous powers associated with them. I observed with interest as a crowd of faithful pressed forward with their articles, reaching for the pole to take their article, awaiting the possibility of receiving such a blessing. Now I understood why the cars were parked for three kilometers along the road. Pasquarella is a big event in the region.
The fresco was not painted by a famous painter, nor is particularly sophisticated, but nonetheless essential to this region’s cultural patrimony. There is no label on the fresco, no history, and nothing in academic research on this particular image. Seeing is believing, in the sense that the belief in the image is still strong in these small Umbrian towns. The painter is unknown, but the image was most likely re-painted hundreds of years ago.
The foundation stories of this image vary. One recounts the image inducing some thieves immediate conversion to the faith upon seeing the image. Another that the image was inexplicably found on the shore of the Tiber River after a flood. In 1890, 91,92, 97, and 1900 the “sweat” of the Madonna appeared as a veil of water over her image, wet enough to create rivulets of water. No other part of the fresco or church had dampness or water, and the story goes that it occurred independent of the weather.
A cult surrounding the Magi (the three kings who gave gifts to the baby Jesus) appeared in the twelfth century, associated with some relics discovered in northern Italy. Perhaps this accounts for some initial attraction to the image. This rock hewn church, once probably a Roman temple, was first documented in 1275. The surrounding complex became a monastery and subsequently abandoned. Notwithstanding the varying legends, the locals still find the image compelling and a vital part of their community.
The Crying Madonna
Far from the hills of Tuscany, in the northeast corner of Italy, lies the Alto Adige region, also known as the South Tyrol. Culturally, it’s the least Italian part of Italy, set in the stunning Dolomite mountains, the most eastern part of the Alps. Rich in vineyards, orchards, and Alpine pastures, it is a popular vacation spot for Germans, and less frequented by Americans. Think of it as Austria with a Mediterranean climate and food.
Just a two-hour drive north of Venice, the South Tyrol couldn’t be more different from the rest of Italy. Austrian in culture, with German as its first language, the area was gifted to Italy following World War I, as a spoil of war. Try as Mussolini did to force Italianization on the people, they clung to their culture and resisted assimilation. The locals consider themselves neither Italian nor Austrian. They call themselves Tyrolians. Decades after World War II, after protest and violence, the area achieved autonomous status. Italy controls federal issues and the South Tyrol controls schools, culture, and language. It’s a prosperous region with deep religious ties to the Roman Catholic faith. Residents speak German first and Italian as a second language; English is not spoken fluently in the smaller towns.
Faith is manifested in numerous roadside tabernacles with crucifixes and statues of the Madonna. They are tended to with care and frequently have candles, flowers, or wreaths of grains or corn adorning them. While the rest of Italians shrug their shoulders when it comes to going to church or worship, the Tyrolians take it more seriously.
Each town has a German name listed first followed by the Italian name. Kurtatsch an der Weinstraße, or Cortaccia sulla Strada del Vino, means literally Kurtatsch on the Wine Road. With a population of some 2,000 and seemingly just as many vineyards, it is a typical small town in the region. Near the center of town, the tall spire of the eleventh century San Vigilio church sits on the hillside. Like many churches, it was re-built and enlarged throughout the centuries. The current version of the sacristy is from about 1677, and the nave from 1840s.
It’s a small local parish church with a miraculous image inside, the Madonna Dolorosa, or Our Lady of Sorrows. The Madonna Dolorosa is usually depicted with an inflicted wound from a sword as a reminder of her sorrows, namely her son’s passion and crucifixion. Madonna Dolorosa images were popular for Catholic meditation and prayer. This oil painting probably originates from the 1600s, and the painter is unknown.
Originally the painting was located in a private home. An emperor’s solider visited the home and was praying the rosary. Suddenly the Madonna painting appeared to cry tears on 28 November 1733. The incident repeated and was reported to the bishop, who confirmed the paranormal activity, which continued for four years. The painting was then moved to San Vigilio where it became a pilgrimage site. No further incidences of tears or sweat were noticed, but there are numerous incidents when the Madonna saved people or averted disaster.
Many ex-voto paintings are displayed in the church as thanks for her intervention, depicting the disastrous scene and her appearance. Most are simple representations done in a folk-art manner. The point is not to impress with the art, but to tell a story which confirms the miracle and relates the experience to others. The most recent of which is the 2001 storm and resulting rock landslide which caused damage. The image of the Madonna is reproduced in the town of Kurtatsch on public walls and in buildings.
Ex-votos, San Vigilio, Kurtatsch an der Weinstraße.
Other ex-votos show children saved by an angel from getting hit by a train, and a child healed and presented before the Madonna. Another ex-voto lists names of Kurtatsch men who served in the 1935-36 Abyssinian war, thanking the Madonna for their safe return. This was a war of Mussolini’s choosing attacking Ethiopia in an effort, which eventually failed, to re-create the Roman empire. Participating in this war under forced Italianization must have been difficult for the Tyrolians.
The Madonna and Horse Manure
Punishment for disrespecting miraculous images was harsh, as the nobleman Antonio Rinaldeschi found out. An outdoor fresco of the Annunciation was an important image cult in Florence. The image, from late 1400s, is known as the Madonna dei Ricci and it was placed outside of a church. The fresco depicts the Madonna receiving the news from an angel that she would be the mother to the son of God. There were a few outdoor frescoes of the Madonna in Florence, placed strategically to remind people to behave appropriately. It didn’t always work. A nine-part painting by Filippo di Lorenzo Dolciati, tells the sad tale of Antonio.
Unfortunately, Antonio is hounded by satanic demons to gamble, drink, and play dice at an outside osteria, a tavern. The first panel in the upper left shows the dice game and the reaction of the fellow gamblers as Antonio turns to walk away in his black cloak and cap, as he lost his bet. The second scene shows Antonio in anger picking up a pile of horse manure, with demon in tow above his head, and the third slinging the manure at the Madonna dei Ricci fresco. Not a good idea, as the next five scenes show his arrest, time in prison, confession, and in the last scene he is served his sentence for his crime – hanging from the balcony of a government building. The fresco functions as moral lesson against drinking, gambling, and image desecration.
Not everyone was so enthusiastic about the proliferation of miracle based art and stories. Many miracle books were published after the advent of movable type. Nearly 300 miracle books were published in Italy during the late 1400s to 1600 and widely distributed. Depictions of miracle related art was common in homes. Families displayed wooden tablets in their homes with ex-votos of miracles, although ex-votos were also popular in wax, papier-mâché, and metal. It seems miracles were frequently announced and documented throughout Italy, to the point where some critics firmly warned about the so-called miracles.
Martin Luther (1483-1546), in spite of his ordination as a priest, began to question the evidence of miracles and glut of ever growing saints Catholics prayed to for intervention. Luther lost his belief in miracles as his philosophy and faith matured in his life. He disapproved of the abundance of popularized miracles and cults of saints, as well as the very lively festivals in their honor. Erasmus (1466-1536), humanist Catholic priest and philosopher, questioned the authenticity of many popular miracles and wrote about the foolishness of believing in all miracles. He railed against the numerous ex-votos and oral history of popular miracles, which he assumed were myth. He questioned how Mary could possibly address the variety of concerns, especially when they were selfish: to grow younger, heal pains, provide good weather, bestow good finances, get a handsome husband. Yet the belief in miracles, particularly Marian miracles, persisted well into the Reformation.
Brundin, Abigail, Deborah Howard, and Mary Laven. The Sacred Home in Renaissance Italy. Oxford University Press, 2018.
Garnett, Jane, and Gervase Rosser. “The Ex Voto between Domestic and Public Space: From Personal Testimony to Collective Memory.” Domestic Devotions in Early Modern Italy, edited by Maya Corry et al., vol. 59, Brill, 2019, pp. 45–62.
Holmes, Megan. The Miraculous Image in Renaissance Florence. Yale University Press, 2013.
Websites related to the Madonna Dolorosa in S. Vigilio, Kurtatsch an der Weinstraße, Cortaccia sulla Strada del Vino, South Tyrol: https://www.weinstrasse.com/en/highlights/tradition-and-culture/myths-and-legends/the-miraculous-image-of-cortaccia/
Websites related to the Madonna della Pasquarella, Acqualoreto, Umbria (Italian) https://www.iluoghidelsilenzio.it/eremo-della-pasquarella-orvieto/
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eE7mUXb6knU (Italian) About five minutes into the video the faithful present articles to the attendant who lifts them to the image.