There are places on earth that somehow get to you, and sometimes it’s not easy to put your finger on exactly why. The tiny church of La Madonna del Bagno near Deruta is one of those places for me. I am charmed and moved every time I have the opportunity to visit, though at first glance you, too, may be scratching your head.
This country sanctuary, just meters from the roar of traffic on the four lane E45 highway (in fact, if you are arriving from Rome this is a great place to stop off for a few minutes and stretch your legs. Take the Casalina exit and follow the signs; you will be there in roughly 30 seconds.) with its neat yet nondescript brick exterior, seems like a place you could easily pass by in a region saturated with architecturally imposing cathedrals and basilicas.
What makes La Madonna del Bagno special is on the inside—hundreds of majolica votive tiles adorn the walls of the church, each inscribed with the letters PGR (Per Grazia Ricevuta or for grace received) and a scene depicting various misfortunes and illnesses that have been resolved due to La Madonna’s intervention.
First a brief history of this quaint and fascinating tradition. In the mid 1600s, a Franciscan friar found a broken fragment of crockery on the ground, the base of which was painted with an image of the Madonna and infant Jesus. To avoid it being trodden on by passersby, he wedged it between the branches of a small oak tree along the path. Later, a merchant from nearby Casalina noticed the fragment had fallen again, so nailed it back to the tree. This merchant—Cristoforo di Filippo—returned to the tree just a few years later to pray to the image of the Madonna and ask for her grace to save his dying wife—whom he found in perfect health upon his return home. The couple then commissioned the first votive plaque to give thanks to Maria for her intervention, a tile now almost 400 years old that can still be seen behind the altar of the church.
Just months later the first stone was laid to build the church around the site where the oak grew, which can now be viewed behind glass above the altar of the church, with the fragment of painted crockery still attached to its trunk. Once the church was completed, local citizens began commissioning their own tiles to give thanks to the Madonna for her various interventions. Over the succeeding 4 centuries, these tiles gradually began covering the walls and corridors of the sanctuary. Looking closely, you can even see some affixed around the ring at the base of the cupola’s interior.
I suppose some of the charm of this church is its unique history—and the romantic aspect of a desperate and grieving husband whose love for his wife is so intense that it spawns a miracle. But I can’t deny that my fascination revolves mostly around the votive plaques themselves.
From a historical point of view, it is interesting to see the progression as the scenes move from medieval misfortunes like demonic possession, highway robbery, and females bedridden for undisclosed maladies and rural accidents that involve horses, agricultural tools, and falls from trees to sons returning from war and open-heart surgery and industrialized accidents involving cars and trains. I wander through and watch Umbria’s 400 year modernization take place in a 20 minute majolica slide show.
From an artistic point of view, I find the progression of artistic styles—from the simple two-dimensional rendering in the earliest tiles, to the more decorative and elaborate paintings from the 1700s, to the straightforward journalistic style of post-war Italy—as complete and self-explanatory as any local museum. The color pallet has changed over the centuries, the tiles range from barely more than a sketch to legitimate works of art, the faces have gone from mask-like to hyperrealistic, but the basic iconography has remained intact.
From a human point of view, one of the most disturbing images I have ever seen is a photo of the destruction wrought over two nights in 1980 when thieves broke into the church (at the time it was left unguarded. Currently, it is attended to by a foundation which provides housing and work to adults in need. The women clean the church and the men tend the garden; I have never seen the church and grounds so immaculate. If you stop by, give them your compliments…they beam with pride.) and stole over 200 tiles—including the original tile from Cristoforo di Filippo. Even more tragic were the dozens left abandoned on the floor after being broken by clumsy hands trying to chip them out of the walls. Many were later recoved, others were replicated from photos (you can pick these out, as their colors are discordantly bright despite the dates from the 1600s), but the fact that these intimate tokens of devotion were stolen and sold is heartbreaking.
From a spiritual point of view, I have always been attracted to simple manfestations of faith more than elaborate religious ceremony. I find these unpretentious tiles so representative of the Umbrians’ pragmatic spirituality and so poignant in their straightforward depictions of life’s most painful moments that it is deeply moving. That I can get teared up over the rough rendered painting of a toddler falling into the flames of an open fire 300 years after it happened, and feel relieved knowing that the child survived, is a testament to the spirituality of this humble place.
I suppose what it comes down to is that in these humble squares of terracotta I find embodied all I have come to love about Umbria: its rich history and sense of tradition, its humble yet steely faith, its artistic eye and ability to render even the simplest thing beautiful, and, ultimately, its overwhelming—and, at times, it can be just that—sense of family. The first tile, painted in 1657, gives thanks to Maria from a family. The last tile, painted in 2010, gives thanks to Maria for exactly the same thing. Here’s to the di Filippo family. Here’s to the Natalizi family. Per Grazia Ricevuta, we give thanks.
Note: The sanctuary was historically known as La Madonna del Bagno, but in contemporary times has also come to be called La Madonna dei Bagni. It’s the same place.