Monday, March 10, 2008

The Healing Power of Ceramics

Therapeutic shopping is not today's subject, though indeed it could be, since nothing cures the blues better than wandering the ceramics factories in Deruta to discover something that I don't already own and didn't know I couldn't live without.

This is about completely different kinds of miracles, beginning with the story of a single ceramic cup found in the tiny Umbrian village of Casalina, near Deruta. In 1657, a local merchant named Cristoforo stumbled across a little cup, which was decorated with a picture of Mary and baby Jesus. For some reason, Cristoforo hung the cup in an oak tree near a stream. When his wife became seriously ill, Cristoforo remembered the cup and prayed to the Virgin of the cup to spare his wife. By that evening, she was completely cured. Thankful, Cristoforo placed a handpainted ceramic tile on the tree, depicting his wife sick in bed, he himself praying to the cup hanging in the tree, and the written story of the miracle.

Before long, word got out about the miracle and people started asking the Virgin of the cup for help; other tiles commemorating miracles were nailed to the tree. Eventually a sanctuary, the Madonna del Bagno (Our Lady of the Stream, the name an improvement over Madonna of the Cup) was built around the oak tree, which is still visible behind the altar, along with fragments of the original cup. The walls of the little church are completely lined with hundreds of tiles dating from 1657 to 2005, each one made by an artisan to give thanks to the Madonna for creating a miracle. On many of them are the letters "PGR,"
per grazia ricevuta, for grace received.

The Madonna del Bagno has performed some very interesting miracles indeed -- tiles from the 17th century illustrate people falling out of trees, getting struck by lightning, gored by bulls, falling through a ceiling or off a horse, and running from packs of red devils. More modern
matonelle (tiles) show a man on a bicycle being run over by a big long car in the 1930s; another depicts the day dynamite made a man blind and the Madonna restored his sight. There is also one involving a train -- details about the miracle are not clear. Miracles that saved children cut across all time periods, with babes in arms visible from the 1600s through today.

This little sanctuary near Deruta is one of Umbria's secrets, hidden in the shadows (the word Umbria means shade) until discovered on the way to somewhere more known or popular. A devastating robbery in 1980 resulted in the closure of the sanctuary for seven years, but the people of Casalina, undoubtedly assisted by the Madonna del Bagno, managed to raise the money for restoration. Today it is a reminder of the close ties between art, history, culture and religion that have marked Umbrian life for a thousand years.

When we stopped at Madonna del Bagno, we were actually on the way to what may be Umbria's most divine restaurant. The food at L'Antico Forziere is so good, in fact, that it just may deserve a tile with the letters PGR. To round out a day devoted to ceramics, visit the Ceramics Museum, where the exhibit celebrates the work of the painter Pintoricchio with an exhibit of majolica pieces through June.
copyright Sharri Whiting Umbria Bella 2008

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