It had been a long week but I had made it through. What’s more, it was Easter so I had a three-day weekend to look forward to! After 3 months of being in Italy, I was beginning to get used to things. Teaching was going well and I was slowly getting used to the language and famous Italian bureaucracy. I even had plans for Easter Sunday – a big traditional lunch with a friend’s family. As I sat in my flat with the two stray cats I had managed to pick up, I couldn’t help but be proud of what I had achieved in the space of a few months. I could honestly say I deserved my beer, even if it was just a Peroni. No, I wasn’t out at a crazy party in Rome (newsflash: working abroad isn’t just one long holiday) but I was happy with life. That was until I heard the music.
Just as I was eating, I heard the ominous notes of what can only be described as some form of death march. A chill ran down my spine as I heard low-key chanting. The sound seemed to echo around my kitchen. What was that? Curiosity drove me out onto my balcony where I could see a sea of lights bobbing down the main road. All around were crowds of people stood silently, watching. Below the lights, I could see men dressed in green and white robes, swaying in time to the music. The source of the chanting. Loudspeakers were being carried above the mass of bodies, sending their unnerving anthem out across the town.
Then I saw Him. Jesus. Not just any Jesus, though. It was Jesus lying on his deathbed being carried down the street. For someone who grew up in a non-religious family in Wales, this was quite a shock. The chanting continued as Dead Jesus was paraded down the street for all to see. Then came Mary, all dressed in black, carried on the shoulders of the men below. Along she went with the crowd, mourning her dead son, a black veil covering her face. I watched in awe, totally mesmerised by the performance playing out in front of me. As the crowds passed, I was left in a state of utter bewilderment on my balcony, not sure whether or not to believe what I had just seen. The procession lasted well into the night, going all around the town before finishing up back at its starting point, where Jesus was put away until the next year.
Easter in Sulmona
The Friday procession is not the only celebration here in Sulmona. The celebrations start on Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, when everyone goes to church and leaves with an olive branch. On Easter Thursday, people traditionally take part in “Sepolcri”, where they complete a circuit of the churches throughout Sulmona. For young people, “Sepolcri” now involves trying to complete a circuit of the pubs and bars in the town.
La Madonna Che Scappa in Piazza
Easter Sunday boasts La Madonna che Scappa in Piazza, or the Running Madonna. This is a huge event in Sulmona’s cultural calendar. The whole town gathers in the main square, Piazza Garibaldi, and waits in sweet anticipation for the moment when Mary and Jesus are reunited after his resurrection. It really is quite a show and people arrive early to make sure they have the best spot, come rain or shine.
Just before midday, the Apostles Peter and John knock at the church door where Mary has hidden herself away, mourning the death of her son. The first time, she doesn’t believe John and sends him away. So next Peter tries. According to local tradition, Peter is a well-know liar. Again, Mary refuses to believe that her son has risen from the dead and closes the door in his face. John tries once more and this time Mary comes out of the church to see what they are talking about. When she sees her son at the other end of the square, she runs full throttle towards him, ripping of her black robes as she goes. Doves fly out and reveal a bright green dress as Mary embraces Jesus.
There are lots of superstitions surrounding this event. If the Madonna falls, or the doves don’t fly properly or the dress doesn’t come off completely, bad things will happen. In fact, in 1914 and 1940, the ceremony didn’t go quite to plan, leading the people of Sulmona to believe that it was a premonition for the world wars that followed. If you find yourself in Sulmona on Easter Sunday, you should definitely head to Piazza Garibaldi but be sure to get there early or you won’t see anything. If you’re not in town, there will be a live stream via webcams that you can watch from anywhere in the world.
Watch the Venerdi Santo Procession below: