Madonna del Pilerio, Cosenza

Significance of the Icon

Faith, worship, religion, and popular traditions: all in one icon. All in a few square centimeters that breathe the beauty of Mary: it is the image of the Virgin of Pilerio. An ancient cult, that of the Virgin of Pilerio. A story that, given the historical moment of the pandemic we are experiencing, can only arouse inevitable parallels.

Before delving into the history of this Marian icon, however, it is appropriate to specify its artistic nature, albeit in brief hints. The image belongs to the iconography of the so-called “Galaktotrophousa”, “Nursing Madonna”. In fact, the icon portrays the Madonna in the act of offering her breast to the Child Jesus to breastfeed him. They express tenderness, those hands of the little Jesus who – dressed in a transparent tunic, bound around the waist by a red sash – gently grasp the Virgin’s breast. The hands of Mary, on the other hand, are wrapped in a purple mantle. Behind the two figures, the gold color, typical of icons, stands out. On the sides of the halo of the Madonna, there are the “sacramental” initials “MR” “DNI”, painted in white and in Gothic characters.

But let’s now enter the history of this precious icon. We are in 1576, in Cosenza. A terrible epidemic hits the city. Numerous, the victims. Citizens are now tired of the tragic conditions in which the Calabrian city is concerned. The epidemic does not want to slow its progress. In this apocalyptic scenario, the famous icon “takes the stage” which – at the time of the events – was hanging from a pillar (hence the name “pilerio”) of the cathedral. Something unusual, extraordinary happens: a plague bubo appears on her face. The news spread quickly throughout the town. Faith enters history. Thus enters the lives of citizens who begin to think about giving a single, unequivocal interpretation of what happened: it is the Virgin who “takes charge” of the city’s plague.

To confirm this interpretation, the months following the prodigious event: the regression of the disease miraculously begins in the entire city of Cosenza. From this moment on, numerous pilgrimages began, so much so as to induce – in 1603 – Archbishop Giovan Battista Costanzo to give a new location to the icon of Mary. Monsignor Costanzo wanted it on the high altar. Only in 1607 was a special chapel dedicated to this image, where it still stands today. In the same year she was crowned as “Queen and patroness of the city”.

In this fascinating story, we have to make a leap in time that transports us to 1783. Two hundred and seven years have passed since that prodigious sign. The history of the icon is inserted again in history (the one with a capital “s”) and the leitmotif is always the faith, the cult, the veneration on the part of the people of Cosenza for the “Virgin of Pilerio”.

Cosenza is in fact the victim of a terrible earthquake. Once again, victims and wounded: this is the bleak landscape encountered in the city. It was on this occasion that another visible sign was found: the faithful noticed some cracks on the Virgin’s face which subsequently disappeared – albeit not completely – once the earthquake ceased. The fame of the image had now been marked by these two events: the first, the plague of 1576; the second, the earthquake of 1783. But other events will intertwine with the history of the icon: for example, the terrible bombing of 12 April and 28 August 1943 and another earthquake, which occurred on 20 February 1980.

The feast of the Madonna del Pilerio is celebrated on February 12 of each year, in memory of the earthquake that, on that date, struck Calabria in the year 1854.

The “Vergine del Pilerio” was crowned three times: the first, that of 1607; the second, on 12 June 1836, by the hand of Archbishop Lorenzo Puntillo and, finally, that of 1922, by Monsignor Trussoni, the then archbishop of Cosenza. Historic, the visit of St. John Paul II who – on March 6, 1989 – officially recognized her as Patroness of the Archdiocese of Cosenza.

Our contemporary reinterpretation

Madonna del Pilerio is a sacred icon of the city of Cosenza.  It is a painting depicting The Virgin Mary nursing baby Jesus. This religious figure represents the salvation of the people of this city from two devastating catastrophes: an outbreak of the bubonic plague and a deadly earthquake. In both the occasions the figure absorbed the impact of the two tragedies. During the plague, black wounds suddenly appeared on her face, and a few days later, the city was miraculously no longer infected. Another miracle happened when the earthquake struck centuries later; a crack appeared on her body and the earthquake ceased almost immediately.  That led the people of Cosenza to revere this icon and see her as a symbol for hope and salvation.

For this project, we decided to recreate this icon as a modern interpretation. Four groups from four different countries (Italy, Greece, Macedonia and The Netherlands) came together to create a video of a modern version of Madonna del Pilerio facing the effects of our world’s current problems.  With all of the issues we presently face in the world, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing pollution and war, our contemporary depiction of the icon shows her suffering with plastic clothes to represent her adapting to rising levels of climate changed caused by overproduction of plastic, gloves and a mask for protection against COVID-19, and finally war paint on her face to represent war-torn countries. The video zooms out to reveal the setting in front of the Cathedral of Cosenza, and then pans upwards towards the sky to represent seeking salvation from heaven.