It’s the festival of the patron saint, the “big feast”, it’s the most important religious event. Everybody gathers around the Madonna della Madia and it’s a unique experience. According to tradition, her portrait, a Byzantine icon depicting a Virgin with Child, came from the sea on a raft. It is said that in 1117 the Madonna appeared three times in a dream to a devoted man called Mercurio. It was the year in which the Bishop Romualdo decided to build a new and bigger Cathedral, which needed beams to raise the vault, but unfortunately work was interrupted due to economic reasons, so the Virgin told the humble Mercurio that the beams were at the port. Mercurio in turn told the Bishop who at first didn’t believe him, but then when he went for himself was surprised to see a raft made of beams, exactly like those needed to finish the church. On the raft there was an icon depicting a Madonna with Child which was carried by the worshippers in a procession after the bells rang early in the morning.
The port by night
For centuries the citizens of Monopoli have been venerating the Madonna della Madia every year on the 15th of August and on the 16th of December, the date in which she arrives into the port. Many worshippers hold an all night vigil with their friends and relatives before going to the port at dawn. In the past they prayed for the Virgin during the vigil, nowadays young people play and amuse themselves around the table. The Bishop, all confraternities and civil and military authorities wait for the raft of the “mother” of the inhabitants, while the night sky is brightly illuminated by fireworks. The incredulity of Bishop Romualdo has survived throughout the centuries and even today the Bishop refuses to see the portrait three times, only on the fourth viewing does he accept it and hold it up to a clapping crowd. It seems like the miracle is happening again, in fact every breath of wind and anxieties die down and everyone feels kinder. Soon after the prayers, the solemn procession starts and goes through the streets of the historical centre decorated with Christmas lights, finally reaching the cathedral for the first mass. In her house the Madonna receives a continuous pilgrimage of believers all day long.
The meanings of a rite
The patron’s feast day must be organized with a ritual repetitiveness: the same atmosphere, pathos and involvement are to be recreated for the success of the celebration.
For the 16thof December and 14th of August the town is decked out in order to maintain the pact with this “icon”. You will breathe mystical air during the night of the 16th of December, when the inhabitants walk through the streets towards the port, at calaBatteria, waiting for her arrival in a spiritual atmosphere. Despite the late hour, among the crowd, many sleepy children watch the show because their parents want them to participate in the rite from an early age and receive the community blessing from the bishop, a gesture considered as if it comes directly from the Madonna. The harbour looks like a high central nave of an ideal cathedral. On the sides the wings of the crowd and thanks to the passage of the Madonna, the sea is now blessed and becomes a symbol of healing, the beginning of a new day and life.
They all look like characters from a film set, particularly the fishermen who are very devoted to their patron saint: their faces are cold and half-asleep because of their early morning rise, the children, and a big crowd flock together as if it were an event that had never been seen before. It brings together all social classes in a spiritual atmosphere which captures the attention of even the most reluctant of people. On this occasion, you will pray for the Madonna around the holy icon together with the community and you will discover myths, local rites and folklore of the town.
If you go into the cathedral, you will notice the beams of the raft in the first altar on the right, whereas the holy icon is kept in safe custody in the altar called “del trionfo” in a dominant position. She is called Madonna Odegitria which in Greek means the one who shows the way, in fact she points to the baby Jesus with her hand showing the way of salvation for all humanity.
Her son looks like a miniature adult wearing regal clothes with the scroll of life in his hand.