Pomp & Ceremony during Holy Week

Easter for most of us anglos has become a holiday of bunnies and chocolate. Maybe the odd ’Hot Cross Bun’ if we’re lucky. Now in my 7th year here in Sulmona, one of my absolute favourites on the calendar is Easter – and that’s despite not being a Catholic. The highlights are undoubtedly the procession of the ‘Cristo Morto’ on the evening of Good Friday and the ‘Madonna Che Scappa in Piazza’ on Easter Sunday morning, but the intricate preparations here start days earlier. These solemn rites, many unchanged for centuries, are very much loved by the Sulmonesi and it’s an important  time of the year when families reunite, children come back home from University and people share a joyous time – both inside the many churches and out in the public spaces too. Witnessing these special events in my adopted town is always very emotional and every year I appreciate more and more exactly what it is that makes Sulmona so very special.
This article has been translated from the Italian language version of Wikipedia – where frequently the information about Sulmona and Abruzzo is much more complete than the various English language entries. We hope you enjoy reading about the many details and that many of you will share this special time with us here – if not this year then sometime very soon.
Easter in Sulmona

Settimana Santa (Holy Week) in Sulmona is the series of traditions and religious rituals that take place from Holy Monday to Easter Sunday. The origin of these events is very ancient. They probably date back to the Medieval period and then grew significantly during the Baroque period thanks to the two lay brotherhoods which still organize the principal ceremonies – the brotherhood of the Trinità (based at the Chiesa della Trinità on Corso Ovidio) and that of Santa Maria di Loreto (based at the church of Santa Maria della Tomba in Piazza Plebiscito). These religious rites in Sulmona are now very well known throughout and even outside of Italy and are well attended by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

The programme for the whole week is as follows:

Holy Monday

The members of the brotherhood of Our Lady of Loreto gather in their chapel in the church of Santa Maria della Tomba. They decide who amongst their male members will carry the various statues in the Easter procession – the most prestigious of which is that of Our Lady of Loreto, better known as “La Madonna Che Scappa”. The various quadrilles are chosen – the groups of four men who will have the honour of carrying the statues in the afternoon procession on Good Friday (organized by this brotherhood) and then, but only for a short distance, during the procession on the evening of Good Friday which is organized by the brotherhood of the Trinity. In addition, the quadrille of the statue of the Madonna Che Scappa will have the honour of holding vigil at the Church of La Tomba on Holy Thursday. The brotherhood of the Trinity, in their own church, then have a separate round of voting to establish the formation of the other quadrilles that will carry the ‘Trunk’ (a large wooden cross) and the statues of the dead Christ and Our Lady of Sorrows in the evening procession on Good Friday. There are three quadrilles of the Trinità for each statue: the first has the privilege of carrying the statue out of the church, the second to carry it down through the wide Piazza Garibaldi and the third to bring it back. As part of this vote the Trinity also decides who will be the ‘mazzieri’ – the brothers who take responsibility – stick in hand – for the progress of the procession on the evening of Good Friday. The quadrilles and ‘mazzieri’ of the Trinity also play an active part in the Easter Sunday procession of the other brotherhood – that of Madonna di Loreto – in that the quadrille will also have the honour of carrying those statues for a short distance.

Holy Tuesday

On this day the brothers of Madonna di Loreto begin to prepare the various furnishings and statues. The special clothes for the Madonna che Scappa are covered with a black cloak, while the rose she holds in her hand is covered by a handkerchief. The processional furnishings are neatly stored in the chapel and the statues of the dead Christ, the Virgin Mary dressed in black together with the Apostle Peter and Saint John are placed at the centre.

Holy Wednesday

Within the church of Santa Maria della Tomba the procedures for the staging of the “Madonna che Scappa”, where Mary runs to meet the Risen Christ, are rehearsed. The Church however closes in the late afternoon so that no one can get access, except for the Prior and the Sacristan of the brotherhood together with those sacristans of honour who are responsible for the preparation of the event itself. The sacristans organise the different elements of the procession and put in order the various statues and symbols – in a special way according to a fixed and long-standing code – along the aisle of the church.

Maundy Thursday – ‘I Sopolchri’

In each of the main churches of Sulmona the ‘sepulchres’ are prepared. These are often simply the altars where the Blessed Sacrament is celebrated. The most beautiful of all is that of the church of Santa Maria della Tomba. In this church the brothers, who have to carry the statue on Easter Day, “watch over” the sepulchre and renew their baptismal promises. Other interesting sepulchres are those of the church of San Francesco della Scarpa, which is set up in the Chapel of the Visitation. Here you can also see examples of ‘nenniri’ which have almost disappeared in Abruzzo. These are plants grown in the dark during the period of Lent and which are therefore yellowish in colour. Above the chancel hangs a magnificent 15th century wooden crucifix – draped with blue cloth – from the Cathedral of San Panfilo. It is displayed on this occasion only – thanks to an ingenious system of wires and chains. Also displayed are the crucifixes of the churches of St. Philip, St. Francesco di Paola, St. John the Apostle and the Evangelist, St. Anthony and the Incoronata.

Easter in Sulmona 06

Good Friday

The afternoon procession of the dead Christ

At around 5.00pm from the church of Santa Maria della Tomba, the brothers of Santa Maria di Loreto (the Lauretani), lead the afternoon procession featuring the statue of the dead Christ and the Madonna che Scappa who is dressed in black. The procession, led by the band which plays the famous ‘Vella’ funeral march, only travels a short distance through the streets of the Borgo of Santa Maria della Tomba, to the main Piazza Garibaldi, and then returns to the church. It is called the ‘Piccola Processione’ to distinguish it from evening procession which is organized by the brotherhood of the SS. Trinità.

Evening procession of the Dead Christ

Among the various Good Friday processions, the evening event is the largest and the most impressive and without doubt the one that attracts the largest numbers of both tourists and local parishioners and of which all Sulmonesi are particularly fond. The route criss-crosses all the streets of the old town. It is organized by the brothers of the SS. Trinity so it is also known as the Procession of the Trinitarians.

The characteristic steps of those who carry the lamps and accompany the statues is a slow and swinging gate called the “struscio” (shuffle). The procession starts from the small ancient church of the SS Trinity, the headquarters of the brotherhood, which reopens after having been closed from Holy Wednesday. At the beginning of the procession is “The Trunk”, a large cross from the 18th century covered with red velvet and decorated with silver leaves and fruit. The trunk is carried by a brother and then behind him follow all the other brothers carrying the characteristic lamps – again in silver from the 18th century. Afterwards come the choir of over 120 members singing the Miserere by either Barcone or Scotti which alternate (even years – Barcone, odd years – Scotti), accompanied by a band of musicians. Then comes the heavy, silver 18th century coffin (draped with fabrics and veils) on which lies the statue of the dead Christ surrounded by 33 red carnations which have been laid earlier by the brothers. Bringing up the rear of the long, sad, slow march is a statue of the Madonna dressed all in black. At the Church of Santa Maria della Tomba, a cascade of lights descending from the bell tower of the church confirms – according to the Christian faith – that Christ has freed the believers from sin. In front of this church, according to an ancient ritual, the Trinitari give the Lauretani permission to carry the statues through the streets of their own neighbourhood, after which they hand them back to the ‘Trinitari’. The Lauretani are then invited to march together with the Trinitari until they return back to the church. This stage is very impressive as all the brothers carrying the lamps group around the church doorway to assist in the return of the Trunk of Christ and the Addolorata through the crowd of worshippers and tourists. After that, the doors of the church are closed.

The evening procession begins at dusk at about 8.00pm and returns back to the Church of the Holy Trinity shortly after midnight.

Holy Saturday

The transport of the Virgin, also called the procession of the ‘Addolorata’.

The Lauretani, not dressed in their classic costumes this time but in black evening dress, together with other brothers carrying lamps, transport by the glow of the torches the statue of the Virgin – also dressed in black – from the church of La Tomba to that of San Filippo, at the far end of Piazza Garibaldi.
The procession leaves at 9.00pm and it is a sad, but moving procession of which the Lauretani are particularly fond. It moves at the slow pace of the “shuffle” all the way to the Church of San Filippo Neri where the statue will be kept until the next day waiting for the Madonna Che Scappa.

Veglia Pasquale (Easter Eve)

The Easter Vigil takes place in the church of Santa Maria della Tomba. At midnight, a soft light shines on the altar and the 18th century statue of the risen Christ rises up above the altar from behind, as evidence of the Resurrection. A the church of San Filippo, meanwhile, the Madonna’s wake ends.

Easter in Sulmona 02

Easter Sunday  

La Madonna che Scappa in Piazza (known in English as the Running or Dashing Madonna)

This ceremony, which is organized by the Brotherhood of Santa Maria di Loreto (the Lauretani), is very famous. It doesn’t have Spanish origins however, unlike the other Holy Week events in Sulmona which developed almost simultaneously, the origins of this particular event are uncertain. Its first documentation is from a photograph of 1861 which is kept by the Brotherhood, but the origins might be even older – perhaps dating back to the 17th century or even to Medieval times. In any case, up to the beginning of the 19th century, the event was held inside the church of Santa Maria della Tomba. The Easter celebrations were concluded in Sulmona, on the Sunday morning, with the procession of the Risen Christ which was organized by the Trinitarians, but they only travelled around their own neighbourhood to finish in Piazza XX Settembre. At that time, there existed an element of distrust and suspicion between the confraternities of the Trinitarians and the Lauretani, although that issue has now been resolved.

Around 1800, the Lauretani decided to stage their own sacred event in the historic Piazza Garibaldi, which is one of the largest piazzas in central Italy. The procession of the Risen Christ, organized by the Trinitarians, then began to lose its popularity. It also seemed almost ironic that the brothers processed around Sulmona with their statue, while at the same time the Madonna Che Scappa was happening in the piazza. Sometimes the two processions would meet, so in the end, the procession of Christ was abolished.

La Madonna che Scappa is a narrative evocation of the encounter between Mary and the risen Christ.

On the morning of Easter Sunday, after a Mass held by the Bishop at 11.00am, the procession of the Brotherhood of Our Lady of Loreto leaves from the church of Santa Maria della Tomba. The green standard of the brotherhood leads the procession, followed by all the other brothers carrying lanterns and then finally the statues of the risen Christ together with those of the saints John and Peter. They arrive in Piazza Garibaldi, which is by now full of people as the event is now well known even abroad. The crowd, however, leaves a “corridor” open to allow the passage of the Madonna during the running by the carriers. The standard is carried to the end of the piazza, while the risen Christ is placed under a canopy set up under the central arch of the Medieval aqueduct at the entrance to the vast piazza. The statues of the two Apostles however continue at a slow pace towards the other end of the piazza to the church of San Filippo Neri where the Virgin Mary is inside dressed in mourning. The statue of St. Peter stops but that of St. John goes up to the church door, announcing to Mary the successful resurrection of her son. According to legend, Mary does not believe the news. The announcement is made via a brother who, while knocking on the church door, must also reassure the brothers who will carry (and therefore also run with) the Madonna. After the Madonna has rejected St. John’s news he returns to San Pietro so that he can bring the good news to Mary instead. According to Sulmonese tradition, Peter is ‘na n’zegna fauzone’ (a liar) in an obvious allusion to the three denials made by the saint during the trial of Jesus. Therefore, Our Lady does not either believe Peter’s announcement and she remains unconvinced of the resurrection of her son. St. John tries again, this time with a positive outcome, and the Madonna agrees to follow the two apostles out of the church. The door of San Filippo opens to the applause of the crowd.

"Madonna che Scappa" in Sulmona © Luca del Monaco

“Madonna che Scappa” in Sulmona © Luca del Monaco

The Madonna emerges from the church and, accompanied by the two apostles at the slow walking pace of “the shuffle” starts towards the centre of the piazza, where there is a large fountain made by the wrought iron artisans of Pescocostanzo. At this point the atmosphere in the piazza becomes tense. The two apostles stop and from that distance the Virgin recognizes her Risen Son. In a flash, with an ingenious system of wires (known only by the brotherhood and by the d’Eramo family who have the privilege of dressing the Madonna), her black cape and a handkerchief fall away to reveal a beautiful green dress embroidered with gold and a red rose in her hand. Simultaneously 12 doves fly up into the air. At 12:00 sharp, the Madonna begins her run accompanied by the applause of the people, the music of the band and the firing of firecrackers. Having arrived in front of the Christ the brothers embrace, often unable to hold back their tears of emotion.

If the whole sequence including the running, the dropping of the cloak and handkerchief, and the flying of the doves, takes place without hindrance or mishap tradition states that the year ahead will be favourable. If something does not work as expected, according to the same popular tradition, there will be calamities or natural disasters to come. That concern becomes greater if the statue should fall during the race or, even worse, be destroyed. Historical falls are recorded in both 1914 and 1940, and are therefore, according to some, a prediction of war.

After the race the Madonna is carried into the nearby church of Santa Chiara. She has her dress and hair rearranged if, during the race, she has become disheveled and also a part of the frame that makes up the platform on which the statue stands is replaced.

Until around 1809, when the church and the convent were inhabited by the Poor Clares, the brothers carried the Virgin into this church, so the Poor Clares (not being able to leave the convent) could greet the Madonna. Following the Napoleonic suppressions the convent was abandoned.

Easter in Sulmona - Holy Sunday

After the robes are rearranged the procession begins and the Trinitarians take turns with the Lauretani in carrying the statues. The procession, accompanied by the band, is led by the Lauretani standard followed by the brothers with lanterns, then the statues of the apostles, the risen Christ and the Madonna with the congregation bringing up the rear. The procession then returns to Santa Maria della Tomba, where the statues of the apostles are put back in the chapel. Those of Christ and the Virgin Mary will remain on display in the church until the following Sunday, when they will be placed within the chapel of the brotherhood and hidden from the eyes of the faithful up until the following Easter.


Text adapted and translated for Welcome to Sulmona from Wikipedia, via Valle Peligna in Tasca.


About The Author

Written and curated by bi-lingual partnership Katy Gorman and Susanna Iraci, Welcome To Sulmona is the first born and remains the best-loved child of their marketing & communications consultancy ‘Quid Novi'. They enjoy researching and creating copy for their own website alongside that of the other many guest authors. More often than not Katy is ‘words’ and Susanna ‘pictures’. Katy Gorman: Ex-pat Anglo-American, Quid Novi wordsmith, English teacher & resident of Sulmona since 2009. Susanna Iraci: Marchigiana, Quid Novi visual designer & photographer - also resident of Sulmona since 2009.

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