This week of Ferragosto in Erice, they are venerating their patron saint, the Madonna di Custonaci (pictured), with their annual week-long Festa della Madonna. It’s important to know that Ferragosto is another name for The Assumption, the feast celebrating when the Virgin Mother ascended to Heaven. In other words, there are feasts for the Madonna throughout this mid-summer season.
Earlier this week, I showed you the Black Madonna of Castellamare del Golfo. Erice is not far from Castellamare del Golfo and its nearby ancient site Segesta. Both towns are in Trapani province, and both trace their civilizations to the pre-Pheonician/pre-Greek Elimi people. Let’s also remember that Erice possesses the Norman Castello di Venere, or Castle of Venus, which was built on top of an ancient Roman temple dedicated to Venus, the goddess of love… and before that, the same site was dedicated to the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite; and before that to the Carthaginian goddess of fertility, sexuality, and war, Astarte; and before that to the Elimi tribe’s mother goddess of nature and fertility, Potnia. The region has a long history of sensual goddess worship. Knowing all of this: is it any surprise that Erice’s patron saint is the Madonna? Furthermore, notice the color of her skin. … I think there’s a theme here about Black Madonnas. And although the modern clergy at Erice’s mother church may tell you that the painting is discolored because of years of incense burning, I say, question them. The people of Erice love their mother goddess: a sensual goddess of love and fertility with roots to times long before the birth of Christ.
Let’s also consider how this particular iconography of this Madonna, officially called the Madonna di Custonaci, arrived at Erice. Custonaci is a town down the mountain from Erice. Legend is, that in the early 15th century, this painting of the Virgin and Child Jesus came on a ship from Alexandria, Eygpt. The sailors had miraculously survived a storm, having landed on the beach at Custonaci, and they voted to leave the painting as thanks to the Madonna for delivering them ashore safely. It is well-known among scholars (and locals!) that the Catholic clergy during 1400s were seeking a way to transfer the citizens cult worship of Venus to the veneration of the Virgin Mary. Additionally, the painting’s origins, as having come from the sea, connect it further to the goddess Venus, who was born from sea foam on Cyprus (which like Alexandria, is a far-away place in the East). So, let’s this week celebrate the Madonna di Custonaci with the citizens of Erice and Custonaci, while also recognizing her origins and all she represents.