Molfetta, located on the Adriatic coast 25 km north of Bari, is an active commercial center with one of the most thriving fish and fruit and vegetable markets in Puglia, and a fishing fleet, the largest in the lower Adriatic.
It has a population of 66,839 people. Its origins are uncertain. Some historians claim it was founded by the Greeks, others by the Romans and others by the Dalmatians. In any case, the first certain news dates back to the tenth century, when the name Melphi appears on notarial deeds.
In the early years of the year 1000 the Benedictines, coming from the Abbey of Santa Maria di Anzi (Potenza), built a church near the city with the Monastery of Santa Maria and San Giovanni. In 1095 Ruggero, son of Roberto, the Guiscardo, enlarged the monastery and built two hospitals for the Crusaders, that is for the treatment of the sick and wounded pilgrims returning from the Holy Land. The Church and the Monastery retain the name of Santa Maria, while the hospital, of which a lane still exists, takes the name of San Giovanni.
Since many of the Crusaders, heartbroken by suffering, end their existence in this hospital, in 1162 William, first king of Naples, built a cemetery for their burial (carnaria), and later built a beautiful shrine in honor of Our Lady under the title of “Queen of Martyrs”, in memory of the valiant witnesses of the faith who fought for the honor of Christ.
The icon of the Our Lady of Sweetness
Towards the end of the twelfth century, the Crusaders were defeated by the Turkish armies and the faithful, who escaped the massacre, were forced to take refuge in the West, bringing with them what they could have.
This is how many relics and sacred images come from the East to enrich the churches of our regions. Among these is the icon of Mary which the Crusaders brought to Molfetta in 1188 and placed on the main altar of the Church of Santa Maria.
It is an oil painting, on a cedar table, of 100 by 66 cm, depicting what the Greeks call the “Lady of sweetness” because it is the image of a mother’s loving kindness towards her Son. The Madonna holds in her arms on the left, the side of the heart, the Baby Jesus who kisses and embraces the mother; with her right hand Mary points to Jesus, meaning that she is the way that leads him, as if to say “go to him”. In the corners, at the top two Angels hold an ornamental cloth. The icon takes the name of “Our Lady of the Martyrs”.
Devotion and worship to Our Lady of the Martyrs are growing, the favors and graces received are multiplying and the Sanctuary is progressively embellished with precious marbles and works of art. Our Lady is a sure protection against the adverse forces of nature and raids from the sea. The Turks invade Molfetta and set the Sanctuary on fire, but the icon of Mary remained unharmed.
In the conclave of August 24, 1484, the Bishop of Molfetta, Giambattista Cibo, was elected Pope with the name of Innocent VIII; he immediately, with the papal bull of 1 June 1485, indulges in favor of the cult of Our Lady of the Martyrs, on Sunday in Albis and on the feast of 8 September.
On 11 May 1560, a terrible earthquake destroyed many cities in Puglia, but left Molfetta unharmed. On that occasion, the Town Hall decides to put the image of the Virgin on the civic coat of arms of the city. The people vow to go, with the Clergy, the Authorities and the People, all on pilgrimage to the Shrine on 11 May each year. This anniversary, which is still repeated, goes under the name of “La Medonne du Tremelizze” (Our Lady of the Earthquake). The image of the Virgin, however, was removed from the civic coat of arms in the late 1800s.
In 1840 a citizen of Molfetta, Valente Mauro Oronzo, having received a grace, donated to the Sanctuary a wooden statue, made by the Neapolitan sculptor Giuseppe Verzella, depicting the Virgin and Child and two Angels who place an artistic mantle on the shoulders of Mary, according to the model of the ancient icon.
With the new statue, blessed by the Bishop in the Cathedral and solemnly carried in procession to the Shrine, initiatives are multiplying on the feast of September 8th.
FESTIVAL OF THE SEA
The “Festival of the sea” dates back to 1846, as described by Canon Primicerio Samarelli:
“Located in the center of a pair of paranze, specially drawn and decorated with pavesi, after having traveled a good stretch of sea from 2:00 to 5:00 in the afternoon, with a large following of boats, the statue was placed on the mainland. From here began the terrestrial procession: the first destination was the Cathedral, where the half-length silver bust of Saint Conrad, patron saint of the city, was exposed, then, following a vast itinerary, the statue was carried through the streets of the city, accompanied by a large number of faithful”.
Today the September festival has hardly changed compared to the past; it has only been enriched with illuminations, fireworks, opera concerts and more. It represents the culmination of the celebrations in honor of Our Lady of the Martyrs, preceded by the solemn Novena and by simple but very significant moments of worship.
The rapid evolution that we are witnessing in our days that overwhelms and erases everything, that makes us forget the dear things of the past and continually present us with new forms of idols and ephemeral attractions, has not erased from the hearts of the inhabitants of Molfetta, wherever they are, their great love for Our Lady of the Martyrs and for the solemn feast of the 8th September.
Autore: Don Mario Morra SDB
Libro – Maria SS. dei Martiri, Molfetta. Storia, preghiere, Molfetta, Mezzana 1986.
Sito Ufficiale dal Santuario: http://www.madonnadeimartiri.it/.