ITALY CONTAINS an incalculable number of shrines. It seems every church has a statue in an alcove that attracts more attention than the main altar. This is particularly true in Naples, where personal outdoor shrines called edicole take the form of everything from baroque chapels the size of phonebooths to niches like the one in front of me, created by removing a few bricks from a wall. Inside was a diorama of souls in purgatory, with nude terracotta people consumed in flames up to their necks. Above them was a miniature Virgin Mary, called the Madonna del Carmine, identifiable by her brown dress. According to an apocryphal bull attributed to Pope John XXII, she descends into purgatory every Sunday to pull her children out of the fire, like a mother rushing into a burning building. The photo I took of her miniature shrine became a self-portrait. I couldn’t see the scene inside without seeing my reflection in the glass. I’m not a mother, but the Virgin Mary fascinates me—she’s a mother with limitless love (as conceived by the Catholic Church) and limitless power (as conceived by the faithful). The Madonna del Carmine illustrates the difference. The church believes she rescues souls from purgatory, but the more popular understanding is that she saves only those who obey the strict rules she laid out in a 1251 apparition. The rest she leaves to burn.
In the Catholic faith, only God can save or damn, but few shrines are dedicated to him. Those that are tend to be named for a tangible aspect of the Holy Trinity—the Blessed Sacrament or embodied Christ. Shrines humanize the divine and are often the realm of near-divine humans, saints and martyrs who dispense their power at an individual level. Their miracles are often as circumscribed as their images. Saint Lucy always holds a plate bearing the eyes she gouged out. She now cures eye diseases at her shrine in Sicily. Saint Agatha offers her breasts, which Roman soldiers ripped from her chest. She’s petitioned to cure breast cancer. The Virgin Mary has no fixed image or specialty; her miracles are as abundant as her faces and names. The Madonna Addolorata weeps crystal tears; the Madonna del Latte offers milk from her breast; Nostra Signora del Sacro Cuore pulls back her veil to reveal her flaming heart. The Virgin Mary is a mother willing to sacrifice every part of her body for her children, but occasionally she won’t, and when she refuses, she sacrifices their bodies instead.
An iteration of the Virgin who refused to tolerate loss or pain was the Madonna dell’Arco, an image originally hung in an alleyway edicola in Sant’Anastasia, now a municipality of Naples. According to legend, in the fifteenth century, a man threw a ball against the wall in anger after losing a game. It glanced off the Madonna’s cheek and landed in the branches of a lime tree. The image began to cry blood, and the man found he was unable to move until the authorities came to arrest him for the capital crime of blasphemy. The next day he was hanged from the lime tree, which then withered and died with him, proving that the executioner hadn’t killed him, the Madonna dell’Arco had. A bruise appeared on the painting’s cheek and couldn’t be painted over.
In 1590 the Madonna dell’Arco killed again, after a woman named Aurelia del Prete injured her foot chopping wood. In those days before antibiotics, Aurelia turned to the Madonna for help, promising to bring two wax feet to her street shrine if her foot healed. After recovering, Aurelia went to Naples to buy her offerings, but on the way back she dropped one. It shattered, and in a fit of rage she smashed the other. Later that year she developed a foot disease, and in the night between Easter Sunday and Monday, the Madonna took what she was owed: Aurelia’s feet fell off in her sleep. By some accounts, one foot dangled by a single nerve for a time before it was fully severed. Aurelia asked to be carried to the Madonna’s shine to confess her sin. After she finished, she was immediately struck dead.
The people of Sant’Anastasia embraced her death as a miracle, but the local bishop was skeptical. He ordered an inquest, but the results were never published and ultimately lost. It wouldn’t have mattered. The image was overwhelmingly popular, and its veneration increased. Two years later, Pope Clement VII approved plans for a formal shrine, which still displays the bruised icon and an iron cage containing Aurelia del Prete’s feet.
The story of the Madonna dell’Arco is not obscure folklore, divorced from the modern world. Stores in Naples still sell wax votives honoring her. In one shop, an employee, assuming I wanted to be married, gave me a small, hollow sculpture of a man’s head cast in pale yellow wax. I took it back to America as a souvenir, cradled in a scarf. Years later, the day I moved out of my boyfriend’s house, it melted in my car. I don’t believe in the Madonna dell’Arco’s destructive miracles, but thousands of others do. Every Easter Monday, they hold a procession from Naples to Sant’Anastaisa, bringing the kind of gifts Aurelia failed to give—wax anatomy, metal hearts, and more enigmatic offerings like handcuffs, bullets, and miniature coffins. Some offer their bodies: people once crawled on their hands and knees, dragging their tongues over the rough street and up to the altar, leaving bloody streaks down the aisle. The church suppressed this practice, but some still crawl on their bellies or make the eight-mile journey barefoot. There’s no need to bring wax feet if one sacrifices one’s own.
I took the metro to Sant’Anastasia, mostly to see Aurelia’s feet, less so for the Madonna. I wasn’t going to ask for anything, so I wouldn’t offer her a blister or feel the gush of saline and newborn skin sticking to my sock. Though I often imbue things with meaning (a blister, a melted wax head), I wouldn’t call myself a believer. But the line between believer and nonbeliever is thin. The Madonna’s followers and I share a Freudian view of motherhood: Only an infant believes it has two mothers, a kind one who provides and a cruel one who denies. To mature is to understand that she’s the same person. Our awe and fear of the Madonna are not naïve.
Stories of the Virgin’s violent miracles can be found throughout Italy, where those who cross her are allegedly blinded, paralyzed, struck by lightning, and swallowed by sinkholes. Although she’s willing to inflict pain, the official teaching is that she hasn’t experienced it, at least not in childbirth. Saints Jerome, Thomas Aquinas, and Augustine, all doctors of the church but not medical doctors, agreed that the birth of Christ was painless and bloodless and left his mother’s body, including her hymen, intact. (This last point was extensively debated.) The Virgin Mary never experienced what Saint Jerome called “the humiliations of nature, the womb for nine months growing larger.” Well-meaning people have told me I could do the same. “You could always adopt,” or “hire a surrogate,” they’ve said. I could be a mother like the Virgin Mary, whose condition is indicated by her title, not her body.
A rare exception is Piero della Francesca’s fresco of the Madonna del Parto, Our Lady of Childbirth, in Monterchi, Tuscany, whose swollen stomach protrudes from a white slit in her gown. She’s young and lively, but the fresco is inert. It doesn’t work miracles; it hangs in a museum, not a shrine, unlike a sculpture also called the Madonna del Parto in the back of Sant’Agostino in Rome. (The church contains the relics of Saint Monica but is named for her son, Saint Augustine.) In this version, the Virgin is explicitly not pregnant and balances a toddler on her knee. Her appellation comes from her works, not her image—she helps women conceive. Pink and blue ribbons cover the wall as proof of her efficacy. In 1822 the Vatican formally acknowledged the statue’s power, and Pope Pius VII granted an indulgence to anyone who kissed her foot. The marble eventually wore away, and the church wisely decided to cover the stub in silver, making her whole again.
Miraculous Madonnas are rarely acknowledged by the church, but when they are, they’re often not especially powerful so much as especially popular. Certain Madonnas attract large followings called cults. In a Catholic context, this word is defined as a group of people who share an orthodox devotion to a figure other than God, but sometimes they veer too far toward the common definition. In these cases, the church might paradoxically legitimize a cult to constrain its power and the practices of its followers. In the case of the Madonna dell’Arco, local priests still stress that the procession to her shrine is a general expression of Marian devotion, not a celebration of a vengeful idol. Her power must be half that of a god. She can give life but not take it away.
The Madonna delle Lacrime, meanwhile, is a church-sanctioned, benign mother—a factory-made statue that wept for four days in 1953. She’s displayed at the Santuario Madonna delle Lacrime in Syracuse, Sicily—a shrine whose brutalist architecture looks like a teardrop with a concrete steeple sweeping toward a round base. Inside is a museum displaying a fraction of the gifts that have been brought here in gratitude: racks of wedding dresses and christening gowns, a case of silver candlestick holders, and sculptural piles of crutches. The miracles they represent are backed not only by faith, but by science. The Madonna delle Lacrime’s tears tested positive for human proteins.
The Vatican doesn’t investigate most reports of weeping Madonnas, but this image is one of the most common in the Catholic Church. It’s called the Madonna Addolorata, Our Lady of Sorrows, and is identified by the seven swords plunged into her heart. She cries, but her wounds don’t bleed. The Virgin’s tears are acceptable, but her blood is not—every Madonna who’s miraculously bled has been rejected by the church, like the souvenir statue in Civitavecchia who cried blood from February to March in 1995, instantly attracting a following as well as the attention of authorities. She was investigated and deemed fraudulent after tests concluded the blood was male. The statue, however, is still on display. Childless clerics may accept a weeping Virgin, but to mothers, tears are an insufficient embodiment of love. There’s little meaning in giving away what you can live without.
I hate the phrase “the gift of life.” It sneaks into treacly descriptions of motherhood and is perniciously vague. It’s more accurate to call birth a sacrifice: a gift that must be destroyed in order to be given. Nowhere is this more apparent than room X at the Museo Galileo in Florence. The room contains a series of anatomical models of complicated childbirths used for training doctors in the eighteenth century. Metal forceps set into wax bodies clutch children’s heads, and doctors’ hands pull at their feet. Each child is unique and fully formed, with blond or brown hair and male or female genitalia. Even the one labeled “double monster” has three perfect bath-time-wrinkled baby feet. They are on the cusp of personhood, and their lives, however long or short, are given through their mothers’ sacrifice: the women here are pure anatomy. The most complete are flayed abdomens with vulvas contextualized by amputated thighs with red muscle and bone inside. In these vestiges of mothers, I see martyrs, not in the sense of someone selfishly put-upon, but of the early Christians who sacrificed their lives for a child god. Their tortures are painted on the walls of San Stefano Rotondo in Rome, a circular church that creates a panorama of horror showing the Diocletian persecutions of AD 303, when Romans boiled, flayed, pressed, and dismembered an estimated 3,000 to 3,500 Christians. One scene shows a bleeding Saint Agatha tied to a column, her breasts severed. At least six churches claim to have one, kept as relics to heal the breasts of the living. Some if not all must be misattributed, but they aren’t fake. They’re pieces of real women, reduced to the parts that serve others, like the wax mothers of Florence. In Catholicism, all martyrs are saints who love another more than life. Their shadow side also exists in the world: those whose self-preservation comes at the cost of another’s life.
Murderers have their own shrine in Rome, at the criminology museum, which began as an anatomical collection created to study the bodies of convicts in hopes of finding a link between physical defects and criminality. It’s now a hodgepodge of artifacts relating to crime and punishment, run by the federal prison administration. I bought my ticket from an officer in uniform. Its first room is dedicated to the same tortures depicted on the walls of San Stefano Rotondo, this time in the form of dioramas made by juvenile prisoners in the 1930s. (Nothing is said about why they were in prison.) The second room is devoted to beheadings and contains the axe and hood of Mastro Titta, executioner of the Papal States from 1796 to 1864. The text beside them is excerpted from his memoir, Memories of an Executioner, Written by Himself. He almost certainly didn’t write it, but it’s not considered a fraud; it’s based on his log of 514 of his 516 executions. Only two women are listed, and only one died alone without male accomplices—Agostina Paglialonga.
Agostina was a young widow who fell in love with a butcher who Mastro Titta’s book calls “a kind of Hercules…promising excellent results for women inclined to intercourse.” The butcher said he would’ve married her if it weren’t for her children—two toddlers and an unweaned infant. One night he left his knife at her house, and shortly after, Agostina began telling people her children had been adopted by an uncle and taken to the country. In truth, she’d killed them. She took back the flesh her body had made by boiling it off and scattering the bones in a field. Only by sacrificing their lives could she fill the void inside her. She gave herself wholly to the butcher, but was forced to confess when a doctor saw a dog carrying a child’s tibia.
On the day of Agostina’s execution, women lined the streets, causing Mastro Titta to fear they would kill her before she reached the platform. It didn’t matter that she would die soon. The crowd wouldn’t be satisfied with a clean, professional death—they wanted to rip her apart and expose the monster within. Had they succeeded, they would have found nothing unusual. Neither the criminology museum nor modern research have found biological markers of evil. The bile in Agostina exists within us all. I wonder what—or whom—I would be willing to sacrifice to save my own life.
In Naples, I called a taxi to take me to the catacombs of San Gaudioso. Despite the city’s lawless reputation its cabs are generally safe, but the one that arrived came without shocks or seatbelts. I pressed my hand against the roof to steady myself. I was traveling alone, and the driver asked if my children were home with my husband. I told him I didn’t have any children. A pothole threw me off my seat, and he laughed. He said his car was good for women and made a gesture that seemed to indicate shaking a uterus loose. If he was right, I wanted to get out, and the circuitous route he took was making me nervous. My instincts were correct; we weren’t going to the catacombs. He dropped me off a mile away at the church of San Gregorio Armeno and told me the ride was free.
The inside of San Gregorio is stunning, with a gilded organ loft, marble columns, and plaster angles holding up a ceiling of frescoed saints. It was ordinary by Italian standards. The only unusual sight was women lining up down the aisle as they do every Tuesday. For the first time I could remember, there were no men on the altar. Instead, a nun held out a reliquary, offering it to every woman to kiss. It contained a vial of the blood that miraculously flowed from the mouth of Saint Patrizia centuries after her death. The blood eventually dried but liquefies every week and on her feast day, helping women find husbands and protecting them during childbirth. Saint Patrizia is not a martyr: she died of natural causes and gives away only what she didn’t want. She became a nun to escape an arranged marriage and died a virgin in 665. I’d already been ushed into the line of women, but when I realized what was happening I stepped out and went to her shrine off to the side to see the wax effigy that contains the rest of her relics. In my reflection in her glass casket I tried to see the good in myself, the part that gives, even if I don’t sacrifice. But that doesn’t make me like Saint Patrizia, a guileless virgin saint. I know that the Madonnas of the church and the Madonnas of the faithful are the same. I contain something other than holy bones.
In the apocryphal lost Gospel of Bartholomew, condemned by the church in the sixth century, Bartholomew asks the Virgin Mary, “How thou didst bear him that cannot be?” She replies, “If I should begin to tell you, fire will issue forth out of my mouth and consume all the world.”
Elizabeth Harper’s essays and photographs have appeared in Slate, Lapham’s Quarterly, Hazlitt, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s catalog for Like Life: Sculpture, Color and the Body. Her essay “The Cult of the Beheaded” in Image issue 102 issue was a Best American Essays notable.