New York City, July 17 1900.
The New York Times wrote on that day:
“Little Italy […] was out in gala attire yesterday, which was the day of the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. A crowd of Italians estimated variously at from 40,000 to 75,000 besieged the shrine in the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, at 115th street and Avenue A, from 4 o’clock in the morning until late at night, bringing with them as offerings candles of all sizes, money, jewellery, wax figures, and in one case a pair of spectacles.”
We exchanged ideas in this discussion at the MoR’s about the significance of Italian religious feasts.
Now I’d like to draw attention on those wax figures. What are they?
As Robert Anthony Orsi observes (at page 3 of his 1985 book “The Madonna of 115th street – Faith and community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950”) :
“Vendors of religious articles set up booths along the sidewalks, competing for business with the thriving local trade in religious goods. The booths were filled with wax replicas of internal human organs and with models of human limbs and heads. Someone who has been healed – or hoped to be healed – by the Madonna of the headaches or arthritis would carry wax models of the afflicted limbs or head, painted to make them look realistic, in the big procession. The devout could also buy little wax statues of infants. Charms to ward off the evil eye, such as little horns to wear around the neck and little red hunchbacks, were sold alongside the holy cards, statues of Jesus, Mary and the saints, and the wax body parts.”
Ancient Rome, 342 BC.
Marcia is happy. Her 14-year-old son has recovered from a terrible cart accident. His fractured legs have healed and he can walk again. The lectica carrying her is now set down. She gets out of it and enters a shop not far from the temple of Aesculapius, god of medicine and healing. She buys two terra-cotta legs that she will soon take to the temple of the god on the Tiber island, as a sacred gift expressing her gratitude.
Marcia is fictional but a real ancient Roman shop going back more than a couple of thousand years earlier perhaps (the period of the Roman Republic) was discovered in the spring of 1885 in the foundations of the left embankment of the Tiber.
It contained – archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani wrote a few years later – “a large number of anatomical specimens in painted terra-cotta, beautifully modelled from nature, and representing heads, ears, eyes, breasts, arms, hands, knees, legs, feet, ex-votos offered by happy mothers etc.” to the Greco-Roman deities.
In fact, Lanciani adds, “it seems that at the entrance of the Fabrician bridge (ponte Quattro Capi, see image below), leading from the Campus Martius to the island [where the temple of the god was located, MoR], there were shops for the sale of ex‑votos of every description …”
Anatomical ex votos as offerings to a deity out of gratitude or in hope for healing were common in many ancient peoples. They existed in Mesopotamia, Minoan Crete, ancient Egypt etc. but the most numerous finds were unearthed in Greece and especially in central Italy where most of them date back from the 4th to the 1st century BC.
We also found anatomical ex votos in provinces of the Roman empire. In Gallia now France, for example, they were present in sanctuaries of Dea Sequana, the Celtic goddess of the river Seine.
Robert A. Orsi in his valuable work on NYC Madonna of Mount Carmel does not make use of the term ‘pagan’ as for the Italian-Americans of the period 1880-1950 [I wonder why. I don’t think there is anything shameful about the traces of ancient customs. Quite the contrary]
Paganism is though mentioned when he describes the reaction of the non Italian Catholics to the Italian religiosity. Italians were accused of religious superficiality and of weird, pagan practices.
“In a bitter attack published in The Catholic world in 1888 – Orsi refers at p. 55 -, the Reverend Bernard Lynch excoriated “the peculiar kind of spiritual condition” of the Italian immigrants, fed on pilgrimages, shrines, holy cards, and ‘devotions’ “but lacking any understanding of ‘the great truth of religion’.”
On the following page Orsi mentions “an Italian priest who spent his own life in East Harlem and at Mount Carmel” and who told the author that “he always knew the Irish Clergy were against the Mount Carmel devotions, viewing them as pagan superstitions: “They thought we were Africans, that there was something weird. They didn’t accept it at all …We were always looked upon as though we were doing something wrong…”.
“Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial”
Ancient (Roman) Polytheism and the Veneration of Saints (1)
Ancient (Roman) Polytheism and the Veneration of Saints (2)
Survivals of the Roman Goddess Fortuna
Survivals of Roman Religion
From the Goddess of the Fever to Our Lady of the Fever
See also the survival, in the Italian South, of the Greek notion of the ‘envious’ gods: