The devotion to Saint Mary on the Sea stems from a very suggestive legend. Discover how it is celebrated in Maiori and Santa Maria di Castellabate
In our study of the Marian Titles, among other appellations referring to Our Lady and linked to places where particular devotional forms dedicated to her have developed over the centuries, we mentioned Saint Mary on the Sea. This is how Mary, mother of Jesus, is called in the municipalities of Maiori and Santa Maria di Castellabate, in the province of Salerno, of which Saint Mary on the Sea is the patron saint.
Here on 15 August, the feast of the Assumption of Mary, two great feasts are celebrated in which thousands of faithful and curious people participate every year who converge in the two small municipalities precisely for this occasion. These are extremely suggestive celebrations, as are often the festivals linked to the Assumption of Our Lady into heaven, and, more generally, the patron saint of festivals in Southern Italy. These festivals sink their origins in an often ancient and very deep-rooted tradition, where they mix.
The festivities in honour of Saint Mary on the Sea
In Maiori, Saint Mary on the Sea is celebrated in mid-August, but also on the third Sunday of November, with solemn processions that end with the race of the Madonna. The bearers of the statue of the Virgin, which legend has it was found on the beach by fishermen in 1200, run along the 127 steps of the staircase that connects Piazza D’Amato to the Collegiate Church of Saint Mary on the Sea, the church that usually houses the sculpture. A picturesque celebration, which wants to represent the Assumption of the Virgin into heaven, accompanied by the music of the band and beautiful fireworks.
In Santa Maria di Castellabate the culmination of the festival comes when the statue of Saint Mary on the Sea is taken out of the homonymous sanctuary that houses it. The Virgin addresses her silent greeting to the sea, then is taken in procession through a journey that follows the coast, welcomed by a crowd of festive and excited faithful, and brought to the beach of Marina Piccola. Here the devotees also converge, to witness at midnight the spectacle of fireworks fired by the fishing boats deployed off the coast for the occasion. But the feast of Saint Mary on the Sea begins already in the previous days, with the traditional fair and with the game of Stuzza, an ancient test of skill that sees the contenders try to recover three flags seated on top of a soapy pole placed on the waters of Marina Piccola.
Where does this devotional form come from, and the festivals linked to it?
As for the widespread devotion to Maiori, legend has it that at the beginning of 1200 a ship from the East was seized by a terrible storm off the village. To escape certain death, the sailors decided to lighten the load and threw the goods they were carrying into the sea. A few days later some fishermen from Maiori, taking fishing nets to shore, found cotton bales entangled inside them, part of the ship’s cargo. But the most surprising thing was that opening one of those bales, they revealed a beautiful wooden statue depicting the Virgin Mary. They carried the statue on their shoulders and took it to the village, where it was received with great enthusiasm by all. Since then the prodigious simulacrum of Saint Mary on the Sea is kept in the Church of San Michele Arcangelo, then expanded and transformed into the Collegiate Church of Saint Mary on the Sea.
Sanctuary to Saint Mary on the Sea
In Santa Maria di Castellabate the cult of Saint Mary on the Sea was brought by some inhabitants of Maiori who moved here to escape the plague in the eighteenth century. A further legend places the discovery of the statue kept here on the beach after a shipwreck in 1800 in the waters in front of the marina of Castellabate. Even today it is the fishermen, descendants of those who took the precious effigy to dry, who carry it on their shoulders in procession on 15 August.
The statue of Santa Maria di Castellabate has undergone a long restoration completed in 2017 and has been brought back to the sanctuary dedicated to her, a majestic building with three naves and a characteristic hexagonal bell tower. The statue of Saint Mary on the Sea dominates the centre of the apse.