Madonna è mobile – Frank McNally on a Sicilian tale of two Madonnas

Miraculous sightings

In the Sicilian fishing port of Sciacca (pronounced shee-akka), where I write these lines, there are shrines everywhere to the town’s patron saint, the Madonna del Soccorso.

The shrines are in gratitude to her perceived role in ending an outbreak of the Black Plague in 1626, which had claimed many lives.

During a procession on February 2nd of that year, it is said that a lightning strike caused her statue to be enveloped in a cloud of smoke, after which the plague miraculously relented.

So twice a year now, in February and August, a heavy statue of the Madonna and Child is paraded through the streets by 100 barefoot mariners, to and from its home in the Basilica Normanna, with incense replicating the holy smoke of 1626.


Meanwhile, everywhere you look, residents have erected murals and grottoes in honour of the patroness.

But Sciacca is not the only place this local cult is celebrated. Thanks to fishermen who emigrated from here more than a century ago, the Madonna del Soccorso is also the subject of a festival in the “North End” of Boston, one of the longest-running Italian celebrations in America.

According to a poster in the porch of the basilica here, the 112th annual “Fisherman’s Feast” is under way there even as we speak (August 18th- 21st).

It sounds a bit like a religious version of Puck Fair, with events including a “Best Meatball Competition”. And if there are no goats involved, there is – as in Killorglin – a much-vied-for role involving a local schoolgirl.

The big event is on Sunday, when a nine-hour procession of La Madonna will culminate with “the famous Flight of the Angel”, with the starring part this year to be played by one Gianna Puccio, accompanied by “side angels” unnamed.

Naturally, I Googled “the famous Flight of the Angel” from previous festivals and see that it involves winching the young girl from a balcony over the heads of the crowd.

It looks precarious. But as well as her wings, she also has the support of several visible wires, so no doubt the event is closely supervised by health and safety officials.

Strange to say, I also visited Boston’s North End for the first time earlier this year.

That was not for a religious event, exactly, although it did coincide with the International Flann O’Brien Conference in Boston College, where the writer’s relics (including his hat and overcoat) are held and indeed were displayed to the faithful during our visit.

Anyway, while in Boston, I also toured the North End’s waterfront, and now to my great surprise find that I have completed a Madonna del Soccorso double.

Sciacca is plague-free these days, happy to say. But in Sicily, there are always other things to worry about. As recently as 1968, I have learned since arriving, this was close to the epicentre of an earthquake that killed hundreds.

The worst of the damage was in Montevago, a mountain village 28km north of here, where almost all buildings were destroyed and 300 people died. Another razed village, Poggioreale, was since rebuilt nearby, although many of its surviving inhabitants had emigrated to create colonies abroad.

Sicily has a big history of volcanic activity too, of course. On the drive down from Palermo Airport on Wednesday, there were clouds of unmiraculous smoke everywhere, which you could easily imagine were emerging from cracks in the ground.

On closer inspection, they came from small surface fires, in the tinder-dry vegetation along the side of the roads, or in the median strips. Usually a police car sat nearby, monitoring the blaze in case it spread.

But returning to the subject of religion, or nearly, the one in Sciacca was not the only Madonna being celebrated in Sicily this week. In an unholy coincidence, the popstar version was here too, for a party to mark her latest birthday, which fell the day after the Feast of the Assumption, on August 16th.

The Flight of this Madonna from America also involved her six children and an entourage including visual archivists who recorded the event.

The party was reported to have a “surrealism” theme, although there was also a profane echo of the Boston Madonna festival in the star’s accompaniment by what she called her “side bitches”.

Maybe there was a miraculous element too, if only because the annual event again marked the singer’s apparent defiance of age and gravity. She had turned 64 on this occasion, but if there were winches, support wires, or lines of any kind involved, they were not visible in photographs.