Sanctuary of the Madonna di Canneto Settefrati Italy © Louise Shapcott

photo © Louise Shapcott

The Sanctuary of The Madonna di Canneto

Near to Settefrati is the Sanctuary of the Madonna di Canneto. From ancient times this has been a sacred mystical site and there were a series of pagan temples in this area. One was dedicated to the deity Mephitis, a goddess and personification of poisonous gases and volcanic vapours, who was said to have the power to drive out fevers, particularly those brought on by Malaria. In recent years some votive remains have been unearthed here, together with some Roman coins of the Republican era.

According to legend a young shepherdess, named Silvana, was diligently tending her flock when she saw an apparition of a wondrous lady of celestial beauty, bathed in white light.

Painting of the Madonna di Canneto Settefrati © Italo Caira

© Italo Caira

The lady spoke to the startled girl, telling her to go back down to the village and to ask the head priest to construct a church on this spot, and say that it should be dedicated to her name.  The girl replied that she could not abandon her fold, as she needed to lead the thirsty flock down to the plain in search of water. The lady told her to fear not, saying she would take care of the sheep.  The Madonna is said to have outstretched her hand and first touched the mountain peak and then the foot, and from the rocks began to flow a stream of fresh, crystal water.  She let her ring fall into the watercourse and it transformed into thousands of tiny golden stars.

A shrine was built near to this site. The first documentation relating to the church dates from the 8th century in the Chronicles of the Monastery of San Vincenzo in Volturno.  By 1288 a small Benedictine monastery was built beside the church by the Abbots of Montecassino.  In 1475, to encourage pilgrims to visit the site the Cardinals Bartholomew Roverella and Giuliano della Rovere, granted an indulgence of one hundred days to those who visited the Shrine on certain liturgical festivals. In 1574 it was recorded that the festival of the Madonna di Canneto lasted five days and in 1639 there is evidence that the concluding day was the 22nd August. In 1693 the name of the first benefactor is recorded, that of Cristoforo Bartolucci of Picinisco, who created a decorated niche on the central altar dedicated to the Madonna.

The church was remodeled and enlarged several times over the centuries. Between 1821 and 1849 the temple was further enlarged, incorporating the two portals that opened on the sides, as a development and a continuation of the one on the front of the church.  Also during those years, the great hermit of Canneto, Agnese Massarella, undertook the construction of the Pilgrim’s House.  In 1857 significant restoration work was carried out, funded by Ferdinand II the King of Naples and the local people of Settefrati. At that time the church had three naves with stone vaults. There were three doorways and a portico to the front of the building. Between 1891 and 1894 the basilica was further enlarged. A stone piazza in front of the building was laid between 1921 and 1923.

During the 1970’s, except for the facade, the structure  was almost completely rebuilt in a modern style. After five years of work, the inauguration of the new church took place on the 18th August 1983.


The Statue of the Black Madonna

The Sanctuary houses the statue of the “black” or “brown” Madonna and Child. In the tradition of Marian iconography it is linked to the ancient theme of the Madonna and Child seated on a throne. The statue of the Madonna is carved of elm wood, while the statue of the infant is carved in walnut.  The Madonna probably dates from the 8th century and is Byzantine in style. She has a brown face and deeply penetrating eyes and holds the Christ Child. The characteristic coloring is due to a coating of plaster that has been smoothed and painted.

They are elaborately dressed and both wear golden crowns. (12th or 13th Centuries) is the wooden statue of the Madonna covered more recently by a blanket of silk embroidered in gold and crowned with a golden crown.


The Feast of the Madonna di Canneto

Each August during the Feast of the Madonna di Canneto is celebrated in Settefrati between the 18th and 22nd August. There is a holy pilgrimage to the Sanctuary which draws thousands of faithful pilgrims made made up of individuals and religious groups or societies from Central Italy and from around the world.

On the 18th August a statue of the Madonna, known as the “Madonna Bianca“,  is carried aloft on a golden throne, from the Church of Santo Stefano in Settefrati. The procession makes its way along ancient sheep trails, passing woodlands, streams, waterfalls and hidden valleys on the way to the Val di Canneto, a journey that takes about three to four hours. The participants recite prayers, chant hymns accompanied by traditional bagpipes and accordions. In  times gone by people would dress in their traditional costumes for the festival.

Finally on arriving at the Val di Canneto the Madonna Bianca  meets the Madonna Nera at the Sanctuary, however the two Madonnas are not allowed to rest in the same place at the same time, so the Madonna Bianca is taken to the Sacristy where she remains until the day of the feast.

On the afternoon of the 21st August all the people that have gathered in the valley form a huge procession to the source of the River Melfa at Capodacqua. In the past many pilgrims would walk barefoot, and some would negotiate part of the the route on their knees.

On the 22nd August the White Madonna leaves the Sanctuary to return to Settefrati where she is welcomed by spectacular fireworks display at the Church of the Madonna delle Grazie and there are other festivities throughout the town including a spectacular firework display. There is also the Festival of ‘Sagne with beans

A similar procession is held each year in Windsor Canada by the Canneto Society of Toronto.

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