The Sanctuary of Montevergine
The Montevergine Sanctuary sits at 1300 meters (4000 feet) on the eastern end of the Partenio mountains in the Appenine chain about 35 miles east of Naples. The structure faces east towards the sunrise and overlooks the entire valley and the town of Avellino. In clear weather, you can see the entire Gulf of Naples: Vesuvius, the islands, the Campanian plain —everything. The sanctuary is on the site of an earlier temple to Cybele, an ancient "earth mother"-type goddess. The site and the area, in general, were well-known to Virgil, who trekked up here often, looking for plants to distill into elixirs of long life. (The Benedictines who came well after Virgil are also known for brewing their own potent elixirs from local plants, if not for long life then at least for good times!)
The origins of the sanctuary go back to the early years of the 1000s and the devout William of Vercelli (aka William of Montevergine), who, after a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela decided to replace the earth-mother shrine with one to Mary, Mother of Christ. The original church was consecrated in 1124. William founded his Benedictine monastic order at Montevergine and attracted adherents from throughout Europe almost immediately. The sanctuary quickly became the "mother church" of many smaller monastic communities in the area. The sanctuary then enjoyed the patronage of the Angevin kings of Naples (1266-1435) who transformed and expanded the original buildings along Gothic lines. A later baroque design is by D. A. Vaccaro, and a new Neo-Gothic basilica was added in 1961.
The sanctuary was
dedicated not just to the Virgin Mary, but to a
particular version known in Italian as Mamma
Schiavona. That term is generally left
untranslated in English or glossed simply as "the
Black Madonna." It refers to an icon (detail, right)
on the premises that was put in place around 1300, one
of many "Black Madonnas" depicted in Christian art.
The tradition behind this particular version makes the
extraordinary claim that the central portion, cut out
and placed into the larger painting around it, is part
of the original "hodegetria" —that is, a depiction of
Mary holding the Child Jesus at her side and pointing
to him as the source of salvation for mankind (In
Greek, "hodegetria" means "she who shows the way").
Tradition holds that the original was painted by St.
Luke and that it found its way first from the Holy
Land to Constantinople and then into Angevin hands in
the late 1200s when the last western emperor of the
Byzantine Empire left Constantinople and took the icon
with him. As noted, it is not clear what schiavona means
in local reference to the icon. It might be
geographical since the term used to mean "from
Dalmatia," an area within the old jurisdiction of the
Venice See, which was in possession of the icon when
it first came from Constantinople. (That is absolute
speculation on my part, but the alternatives don't
make even speculative sense: (1) schiavona as a
feminine form of the word "slave"; or (2) schiavona as a
type of sword.) Regardless of tradition, at least some
modern art historians think that the icon is, in fact,
the work of Pietro Cavallini
(c.1250 – c. 1330), a Roman painter active in Naples
at the time. That icon replaced, as the object of main
veneration at Montevergine, an earlier one of Mary Nursing the Baby
Jesus, a work still retained in the museum in
The layout of the sanctuary is interesting in that the new basilica (built between 1948 and 1961) actually incorporates the old one, itself still a repository of significant relics from the early centuries of the church. The architect for the new basilica was Florestano di Fausto (who also designed a number of buildings abroad, including the Cathedral of Rhodes in 1925.) The site is accessible by footpath, by car (on an excellent but winding road), and also by funicular railway from nearby Mercogliano, a one-mile stretch of spectacular engineering that climbs 734 meters (2400 feet), the second greatest difference in altitude between base and top stations among European cable-cars.
There is a rather bizarre episode from World War II concerning the Sanctuary and the Shroud of Turin. That item is here.)