For those who are not born in a Catholic country, “ex voto” is a Latin expression that literally means “according to a promise made” and it refers to paintings and objects devotees give to their favorite Saints after receiving a grace.
The tradition of giving these tangible thanks to gods and goddesses dates back of thousands years; the Church was forced to except this usage in spite of its pagan origin and its thin boundary between faith and superstition.
In some areas of Italy, especially those who have a rural or maritime tradition, people have a close, swapping relationship with their Patrons. In the old ages there were very little kinds of protections; farmers and sailors believed in having a direct dialogue with their own Saint and this blind faith represented some sort of relief for the dramatic situations they often had to face. Earthquake, fires, epidemics, accidents, shipwrecks: alone, against their own destiny, men and women could only beg their patrons and saints for help. Most of the time the subject of their prayers was the Virgin Mary, a heavenly super-mother standing on her white cloud always ready to help their shabby children.
This innocent vision of the relationship between the earth and the sky is often depicted in small naive paintings that are practically lining the sanctuaries all over the country.
Not only paintings though, also embroidered hearts, silver arms and legs, eyes and heads, anything that can evoke a body section affected by a disease, miraculously healed.
In Montallegro sanctuary, the destination we’ve picked to show you this popular traditions, as an extreme devotion reward among the others, right on top of the counter were you can buy all sorts of religious souvenirs, a two meter long stuffed crocodile hanging on the heads of the old shop assistants. The fact that it’s three hundred years old and quite in bad shape, make its floating presence even more surreal. Only recently I’ve learned you can find the same reptile in other churches: it represents the devil and the constant fight human kind has to play against him.
Sanctuaries, by the way, were only built in places where an apparition had been witnessed, and each of these sites have in standard set ups a view to die for, a holy water spring and miraculous healings occurring with some consistency. This explains the astonishing concentration of rewards we can admire inside of them.
When we brought our friend Tosca to Montallegro, a sanctuary placed right in the middle of the Portofino Park that dates back to the sixteenth century over the town of Rapallo, she could not believe her eyes.
Our Californian girl was very surprised to see represented in one of the paintings the San Francisco earthquake of 1906!!!!!
The faithful make a pilgrimage from the city to the church on a beautiful cobbled lane but you can also drive there by car (10 Km) or, which is my favorite option, take a cable car that takes you on top of Montallegro in a few minutes.
Once you arrive, a wide round square opens up to the XIX century white facade and you find yourself in front of the extraordinary view of the entire Tigullio gulf.
If you have nothing to ask the Virgin Mary, as I wish for you, you can always make the pilgrimage on the way back: it will take you about an hour and a half walking briskly.
To have an idea of the place, please have a look to the reportage Tosca made for us …
Photos:copyright Tosca Radigonda