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A surprising discovery in Sicily

There are quite a lot of sights, when you’re in Italy, that cause you to break step, do a second take, shake your head and shrug before moving on, with the vision playing through your head long after.

My visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of the Tears* (Santuario della Madonna delle Lacrime) in Syracusa, southern Sicily, was one of those occasions. The building itself is remarkable enough, a 90-metre teardrop-shaped edifice of grey concrete, fashioned also to look like a tented pavilion to shelter pilgrims, jutting into the sky and visible for miles around.

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Inside, silent, eerily empty when I visited, it is strangely like walking into one of those bleak and featureless multi-storey car parks where the architects have run out of ideas after designing a contemporary exterior. Areas of it appeared raw and unfinished (it opened in 1994 after 28 years of construction) and it screamed out for contrasting softness, perhaps some tapestry hangings, to alleviate the brutal starkness. But that’s how they like it, I guess, and who am I to pass judgment.

It was when I went down into the museum area that the real strangeness took over. There were different rooms containing displays of various relevant items, including some of the 5,000 votive statues unearthed nearby during the building work, but what stopped me in my tracks was the display devoted to modern-day offerings of thanks to the Madonna.

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These tugged so hard at my heart-strings I could barely breathe. In acts of pathetic gratitude to the Madonna for mercies bestowed upon them, people had handed in their crutches, medical corsets, callipers and leg braces – obsolete now, thanks to her gracious intervention in answer to prayer.

Perhaps the most touching, though, were the soft heaps of baby clothes, lovingly knitted matinee jackets, bonnets, bootees, mittens, given as proof that the Madonna had heeded pleas for the blessing of childbirth upon so many desperate couples.

After looking at photographs, letters, drawings, paintings and lovingly executed pieces of embroidery, I turned away to calm my emotions, only to see a display of dazzling white wedding dresses, so incongruous among such desperate pathos. Yet it turned out that these dresses had also been given in thanks to the Madonna by women who had prayed fervently to her that one day they might become brides. Their dresses told the rest of the story.

I was in that peaceful, emotion-charged room for only a short time, but it was long enough to learn what the very depths of gratitude can look like, and to find how strongly the images print themselves on the mind.

* The circular shrine was built to accommodate the growing numbers of pilgrims drawn to a small plaster image of the Madonna, from which, in 1953, in a simple Siracusan home, tears were seen to fall for five days, during which the Madonna bestowed more than 300 miraculous cures. The museum area of the building is mainly devoted to the miracle of the weeping Virgin statue and the objects associated with it.

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