The brown Madonna of Sicily – Our Lady of Tindari
Travelling along the road between Palermo and Messina between the comune of Capo d’Orlando and the town of Milazzo in the Metropoltian city of Messina in Sicily, you can see a large church perched on top of a hill, overlooking the sea. This is the Sanctuary of the Brown Madonna of Tindari, a Holy place of pilgrimage.
The devotion to the Madonna of Tindari
No well-defined and verified historical information is available regarding the origins of the cult of the Madonna of Tindari. However there is a pious tradition that dates back to the period of the iconoclastic persecution. According to tradition, a ship returning from the East, had an image of the Madonna hidden in the hold, hidden away from the hands of the iconoclasts. As the ship sailed the waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea, a storm suddenly arose which forced it to interrupt its course and take refuge in the bay of Tindari, now Marinello.
When the storm calmed, the sailors decided to resume their journey. They raised the anchor, lifted the sails and began to row, but they could not move the ship. They tried over and over again, but the vessel remained in the same place, as if it were stranded in the harbour.
They decided to lighten the load, but it was only when, among other things, they unloaded the box containing the revered statue of the Virgin, that the ship began moving and resumed its course on the open seas.
The locals in the bay immediately got to work hauling the floating cargo from the sea. To everyone’s surprise and satisfaction, in one of the boxes they found the precious image of the Virgin.
After their dilemma of where to place the image, they soon decided to transport the effigy of the Virgin to the highest and most beautiful location in the area - Tindari, where a thriving Christian community had already existed for some time.
This was probably towards the end of the 8th century or in the first decades of the 9th century, when Tindari had already been under the domination of the Byzantines for about three centuries (535-836) and also the seat of a diocese for about five centuries, where the profession of the Christian faith was flourishing. So therefore the immediate reception of the sacred image was certainly accepted.
The author of the statue is unknown, and it is very difficult to define the period in which it was sculpted. Considering the style and taking into account that the Madonna holds in her arms the Divine Child, one could conclude that it dates back to an era after the Council of Ephesus in which the divine motherhood of Mary was defined. Hypothetically the statue was carved in the East between the fifth and sixth centuries.
The Madonna is represented seated, while she holds her divine Son with a raised right arm in the act of blessing, close to her womb. She wears an oriental crown, in the form of a turban, made of the same wood and decorated with light golden arabesques.
The miraculous statue of the Madonna of Tindari was solemnly crowned by decree of the Chapter of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome in 1886.
According to historical accounts, among the very few buildings in Tindari spared from destruction by the Arabs, was a church, with an ancient statue of the Madonna. After 1544 the church dedicated to Our Lady of Tindari was rebuilt, and on the corner-stone of the entrance portal was inscribed the year 1598, probably the year of completion of the portal itself.
For four centuries thousands of Sicilian devotees, burdened by their concerns of life, raised their minds and hearts to the Lord and turned to Her who is “Our Mother and Our trust”. From this sanctuary in the province of Messina, the sweet Virgin of Tindari, sensitive to all the prayers and pleas of her children, profusely poured out numerous treasures of her graces.
The temple, throughout the past four centuries, underwent various restorations, but substantially remained the same in all its simplicity, as we see it today.
The construction of the new Sanctuary was part of the pastoral program of the episcopate of Bishop Giuseppe Pullano (19531977). By 1953, the existing old Sanctuary was unable to accommodate the large number of pilgrims. There were a number of previous attempts, some even considering the demolition of the old church, which still did not seem to offer an adequate solution.
Mgr Pullano identified the most suitable solution which would leave the ancient church intact. The new church would be built in the precincts of the sanctuary house by stripping away the rock and demolishing some rooms.
On December 8, 1957, the first stone which was brought from the Graeco-Roman remains in the area was laid on the site after being blessed by Pope Pius XII on December 30, 1956.
Almost two decades later, on the afternoon of September 6, 1975, Bishop Pullano blessed the interior of the new shrine and the new throne for the statue of the Madonna of Tindari. The statue of the Madonna was then transported to the new temple and placed by the Bishop on an artistic, precious throne, beneath the central arch of the new temple.
On May 1, 1979 the new Sanctuary was solemnly consecrated by Cardinal Salvatore Pappalardo, Archbishop of Palermo, who in his homily defined the Sanctuary as “a majestic Basilica and antechamber of Paradise”.
He explained the significance of the ceremony and highlighted the dedication of the new temple as the launching point for new goals: “moving forward with confidence, towards the future of this shrine while invoking the beautiful prayer … “Madre Mia, Fiducia Mia” (My Mother, My Trust).
The new sanctuary has a basilica plan of a Latin cross, with three naves, a square transept and a semicircular apse. The base is in Carrara marble and the sides of the roof are covered in blue ceramics. On the northern side, adjacent to the left aisle, a large portico 76 meters long and 8 wide was built allowing pilgrims to admire the spectacular panorama of the Marinello lakes beneath. Beneath the loggia there is a large room which is connected to the crypt and forms the penitentiary of the Sanctuary.
The façade imposingly rises above the square crowned with a beautiful bell tower. The doors are in bronze and on the sides of the main door there are the statues of Saints Peter and Paul. Entering the Sanctuary the pilgrim first enters an atrium decorated with numerous stained glass windows, above which there is a large pipe organ.
The central nave is bordered by octagonal columns with white marble bases, and on the vault is a grandiose painting depicting “The Triumph of the Madonna” by the painter Fausto Conti. On the side aisles, in large mosaics we find the representations of the mysteries of the Rosary.
The large altar, in the middle of the transept, rests on yellow marble bases inside which there is a beautiful white marble sculpture representing the Last Supper of Christ. Behind it stands an artistic throne on which the image of the Madonna del Tindari is venerated.
It is interesting to note that the sanctuary was elevated to the title of Minor Basilica in July 2018.
The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Tindari
The statue of Our Lady of Tindari
The procession outside the Sanctuary