During the first week of September 2011, the German National Tourist Office in New York organized a customized trip for me to Munich and Bavaria, in southern Germany, “To Follow in the Footsteps of Benedict XVI,” published as my first “Of Shrines and Sacred Places” in ITV’s October 2011 issue. Among other “Ratzinger” venues, I visited my first Marian shrine with a “Black Madonna” in Altoetting. This Bavarian town has been a spiritual place for over 1,250 years. It was visited by John Paul II in November 1980 and frequently by Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI, often as a child with his parents, but also as Pope in September 2006.

In August 2012, New York’s Czech Tourism Office organized an official press trip to Prague and Bohemia. In Prague I visited the Loreto, another Marian shrine, which was part of my second “Of Shrines and Sacred Places,” entitled “Sacred Places In and Around Prague’s Castle” and published in ITV’s January 2013 issue.

This summer, on a vacation to Cefalù in Sicily, home to the magnificent Norman/Romanesque cathedral started in 1131 for Roger II, Norman King of Sicily, and consecrated to Our Savior and to Sts. Peter and Paul, we rented a car and drove east some 65 miles along Sicily’s northern coast towards Messina, reaching Tyndaris.

Tyndaris was founded by the tyrant Dionysius I of Syracuse in 396 B.C., one of the last settlements the Greeks established in Sicily. Its colonists named the city Tyndaris for their native divinities, the Tyndaridae or Dioscuri, although some sources claim the name derives from an Ethiopian mythological figure. Growing rapidly to a population of about 5,000 inhabitants, the town, located at the top of a promontory overlooking the Aeolian Islands, played a strategic role in guarding the Tyrrhenian maritime routes. Hence it is frequently mentioned in accounts of the Punic Wars. In 254 B.C., Tyndaris expelled the Carthaginian garrison and joined the Roman alliance.

Cicero, Strabo, and Pliny are our sources for information on Tyndaris during Roman times (to which many of its still-existing ruins date: two city gates; baths complete with a splendid mosaic floor and ingenious heating systems; a theater, home to a festival every summer, which was built in Roman times but on Greek foundations; and some Roman tombs). Cicero calls Tyndaris a nobilissima civitas. He tells us that the inhabitants displayed fidelity on many occasions: in particular, by supplying naval forces for the armament of Scipio Africanus the Younger. Cicero says the Roman Senate gave Tyndaris the honor of being one of 17 cities allowed to contribute offerings to the Temple of Venus at Eryx. Later, during the Empire, Strabo speaks of Tyndaris as one of the places on the northern coast of Sicily, which, in his time, still deserved to be called a city. Pliny explains that it probably received the title of colonia under Augustus, but he also mentions, unfortunately without providing a date, a natural calamity that the city had sustained, when a tidal wave swallowed up half of it, probably after an earthquake.

Christianity seems to have reached Tyndaris in the first century A.D., but didn’t take hold until the miraculous arrival of the Black Madonna’s statue, known as “Our Lady of Tyndaris.” In 726 A.D., the iconoclastic Leo III Isaurian, Emperor of the East, issued an edict forbidding the cult of sacred statues and ordering their destruction.

“The story of how the Black Madonna arrived in Tyndaris is the stuff that legends are made of,” the website www.thinksicily.com tells us. “According to local tradition, the statue, which is certainly of Byzantine origin, was one of many works smuggled out of Constantinople in the 8th and 9th centuries… A storm forced the ship carrying the Black Madonna into the port of Tyndaris, where the sailors deposited their load at the local abbey for safekeeping.”

The statue now sits in the new church in a recess behind the high altar above the inscription on her base, “Nigra sum sed formosa” (“I am black but beautiful”), which was added after the Middle Ages and uncovered during the statue’s extensive restoration during the 1990s.

“Another legend regarding the Black Madonna,” according to www.thinksicily.com, “recounts how one pilgrim, making some uncomplimentary remarks about the statue’s skin color, incurred the not inconsiderable wrath of the Madonna. The lady in question turned in horror to see her child plummeting down the cliffs toward the sea. However, in an act of mercy and a demonstration of her unworldly powers, the Madonna made a bank of sand rise from the sea and cushion the child’s fall.” A miracle! Hence these sands of “Marinello,” one of the beaches below Tyndaris, have taken the shape of the Madonna’s profile.

In all likelihood there was no abbey yet when the sailors landed. Rather, the first believers among the inhabitants of Tyndaris considered building a new shrine for the Madonna on top of the promontory for all to see. In the end, they placed her in the remains of the Greek Temple of Ceres, the goddess of the harvest.

The statue is made of cedar wood. Her face, hands, and feet, have been carved and were painted black before her restoration. A painted red tunic and a dark blue cloak with golden stars cover the remainder of her body. She’s holding the Holy Infant on her knee. Presently the Madonna is covered by a white silk mantle and wears a golden crown placed above her wooden oriental turban. She’s venerated on September 7.

Beginning with a mosaic showing the sailors and first believers opening the crate containing the Black Madonna, other mosaics on the wall of the new church’s hemicyclic apse illustrate major events in the history of Our Lady of Tyndaris. The second depicts her installation in the Temple of Ceres; the third, its destruction in 1544 by the Algerian pirate Rais Dragut, but sparing the Madonna; the fourth, jurors of Patti, a nearby town, offering the Madonna the city keys after they regained their freedom in 1699; the fifth, her coronation on June 10, 1940 by Bishop Anastasio Rossi; the sixth, the Madonna being carried in procession through the streets in 1949; the seventh, Bishop Angelo Ficarra consecrating the diocese of Patti to the Madonna on October 24, 1954; the eighth, the Madonna being taken on a boat ride as the concluding ceremony of the Marian Congress on October 24, 1954; the ninth, Pope Pius XII blessing the architectural plans and the keystone of the new shrine in his papal apartments on December 30, 1956; and the tenth, the first pilgrimage to the still-incomplete new shrine, organized for the handicapped on October 14, 1967.

Although not illustrated in the mosaics, a very important date in Tyndaris’ history is the reconstruction of the shrine in 1598, some 50 years after its destruction, by Patti’s bishop, Bartolomeo Sebastiani, also a respected participant at the Council of Trent. Today, this old shrine is enclosed in the magnificent new one built between 1956 and 1977 and consecrated on May 1, 1979, by Cardinal Salvatore Pappalardo, archbishop of Palermo. The mover-and-shaker behind this ambitious project, as well as a determined promoter of vocations, was the energetic Calabrian-born bishop of Patti, Giuseppe Pullano, a devotee of Our Lady’s shrine. He died suddenly on November 30, 1977, as the last works of art were being installed. The grandest of these are the ceiling vault’s painting The Triumph of the Madonna (though she’s not black); the splendid mosaic of the new shrine, and the “Marinello” below a radiant Madonna (again not black) and Child in the bowl-shaped vault of the apse. Other highlights are mosaics of the Madonna’s and of Christ’s lives along the lateral aisles, and Pullano’s polychrome marble tomb in the left lateral aisle.

According to Father Emanuele, who runs the Information Center, well-stocked with religious books, rosaries, and other souvenirs, with the help of three Sicilian sisters, every year approximately 1,000,000 pilgrims visit Our Lady of Tyndaris. The majority are Italians, especially Sicilians, but also Sicilians and their descendants who have emigrated to North America and Australia.

The most famous pilgrim to visit Tyndaris was Pope John Paul II on June 12, 1988. So far, he was the first and only Pope to do so.

EPILOGUE: According to Wikipedia, there are between 450 and 500 Black Madonnas in Europe. Some are statues; some are icons. The statues are mostly wooden, like Our Lady of Tyndaris, but some are stone. They’re often painted and up to 30 inches tall. With 180, France counts the greatest number. In Italy, there are nine, including Tyndaris’; in Naples’ Basilica SS. Carmine Maggiore; in Casale Monferrato’s hillside Sanctuary of Crea; in Casalmonte in Friuli-Venezia Giulia; in Positano; the Madonna of Succor in San Severo (Apulia); in Venice’s Santa Maria della Salute; in Viggiano in Basilicata; and in Seminara in Calabria. In the United States there are two, one in Eureka, Missouri and the other in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, but they’re reproductions of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, the best-known of all.

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