- Saint Gemma Festival, all images © 2009, Vicki Noble. All rights reserved.
Ancient Festival Embraces a Modern Miracle:
How Santa Gemma Spared the Village of Goriano Sicoli from Earthquake Damage in April 2009
The Feast of Saint Gemma of Goriano Sicoli first came to my attention a year ago when I was visiting an Italian friend, Luciana Percovich, who lives outside Pescara, a cosmopolitan area of Abruzzo near the Adriatic Sea. While I was visiting, Luciana showed me photos and described the annual festival in the nearby mountain village of Goriano Sicoli on May 11 and 12. During this festival (at least in past years), the women of the village have always come together in a special house ("the house of Santa Gemma") to spend a whole night collectively baking bread, which is then blessed by the priests and distributed to all the villagers.
A book of old black-and-white photos of this archaic communal ritual reminded me immediately of the work of Marija Gimbutas. The Lithuanian archaeologists profound investigation into the prehistoric communities of "Old Europe" (Europe before patriarchy) has functioned for decades as a support underlying the scholarship of Women's Spirituality. It was Gimbutas who utilized hard archaeological science along with a vast knowledge of the rituals, folk songs, and mythologies of her local Lithuanian populace, eventually to create at UCLA the innovative discipline of archaeomythology. Gimbutas's books show images of ancient temples and shrines where bread ovens, in the shape of a pregnant womb, were unearthed from the temple courtyards, along with other evidence of ritually baked bread.
In another part of the same May festival, according to Luciana, a procession in Goriano celebrates the return of the Maiden to the Mother in the spring something she and I both recognized from our studies of the ancient Mediterranean Goddess rituals of Demeter and Persephone. Naturally, we made plans for my next visit to coincide with this "festival of the bread."
Our well-laid plans were foiled to some extent by the destructive earthquake that hit the region of Abruzzo in April of this year (2009).
Our well-laid plans were foiled to some extent by the destructive earthquake that hit the region of Abruzzo in April of this year (2009). The epicenter of the earthquake was L'Aquila, the capital of Abruzzo, in which buildings collapsed, people died, and thousands of refugees fled the rubble. Nearby villages were also affected and several of the annual May festivals in the area had to be canceled; others were significantly modified, including the one in Goriano. I flew to Italy on May 1st, Beltane or May Day, as pagans who honor the calendar of the Old Religion of the Goddess know it.
We drove up the mountain to Goriano on the morning of May 11th knowing that the bread-baking part of the ritual had been canceled because of the earthquake; what a disappointment. The "house of Santa Gemma," (photo 1 below) where the women always baked the bread, had been seriously damaged and was out of commission, as well as the Church of Santa Gemma (photo 2 below) and an elementary school next to it (photo 3 below). The bread to be distributed, we were told, would be baked industrially this year. A large tent had been set up to stand in for the church and people were crowding into the tent for mass when we arrived. It must have been quite disappointing for the young girls who, dressed in festival costumes, would normally have been called into service distributing the homemade bread (photo 4 below).
Luciana had arranged for us to meet with Christina, a woman from Goriano who is an expert on the festival, having researched and written about it, as well as attending with the other villagers each year. Christina shared details about the meaning of the festival activities, and told us she had in her possession a loaf of festival bread dating from 1926, which, she says, is preserved that is, it does not "corrupt," but remains the same.
Today in each family there is a girl named Gemma, and we met one girl named Gemma who was even born on the saint's birthday.
Gemma, the patron saint for whom the festival is celebrated, was born in the 14th century into a poor but devout family who lived in the town of San Sebastion, then moved to Goriano, where 12-year-old Gemma looked after a small flock of sheep that belonged to her parents (image, top right). She was an especially beautiful young woman and the story goes that a powerful nobleman tried to seduce her and she was jailed for resisting his advances; she died in jail 56 years later. (One internet version of this story makes her eight years old at the time and says she reproached the Count so forcefully that he was shamed and made it up to her by building a hermitage for her, where she lived the rest of her life. Another says he built for her the church of San Giovanni in town; she requested a room with a small window from which she could see the altar.) Christina says the villagers went to the window of her prison (or alternately, the church) to give Gemma bread and that she gave it to the poor, providing a rationale for the bread-baking ritual and communal distribution. Today in each family there is a girl named Gemma, and we met one girl named Gemma who was even born on the saint's birthday.
We processed together down a steep hill to a place where the road curves around and goes on to Gemma's birthplace.
During the main festival pageant, we joined all the people from the village as they walked out of Goriano. We processed together down a steep hill to a place where the road curves around and goes on to Gemma's birthplace, the town of San Sebastion (photo 5 below). At the corner where the road turns, there is a shrine built to house an image of Santa Gemma; this is the formal meeting place and it is here that the crowd gathers and patiently waits (photo 6 below). I found the blend of ancient and modern quite fascinating, seeing contemporary Italian women, some in high heels and dresses, walking the mile or so out of town and down the hill in the hot sun (no one considered driving a car!). Pretty soon another crowd began to appear in the distance (photo 7 below) coming toward us from the direction of San Sebastion. A poised young woman in front of that procession (photo 8 below) was impersonating Gemma going to Goriano, as in the saint's story. Bells were ringing on a loudspeaker; Christina informed us that in earlier times it used to be real church bells, the same ones that were used to structure all of life's daily events.
As the procession came closer, we could see the ones in front carrying a banner depicting the saint. Christina told us about the song they were singing a "sad song" because they had to leave the girl in Goriano now. But later a woman named Adele who joined us for lunch told about an earlier song that they used to sing when she was a child participating in the festival. She sang for us the words she could recall of the devotional, "Le Devo Cantare": "The hands of the Saint Gemma, io le adoro (I love), Le adoro, le adoro, Santa Gemma protect me." Now, she told us, they have changed it to a church song (the "sad song" Christina had mentioned). As the people from Goriano came down the long hill en masse from the village, a marching band played a "glad song," a deliberate contrast, to celebrate that they were now receiving the young woman (Saint Gemma) back into their fold. A young girl kissed "la Tocchia" (state papers and manuscripts carried by the Maiden) (photo 9 below). After some very formal welcomes from governing officials and various townspeople, each giving her kisses on both cheeks, the whole procession started back up the hill and into Goriano. At the top of the hill, people lined the streets (photos 10 and 11 below) in anticipation of the much-awaited culminating event the dramatized meeting of the young woman (the kore, the saint) and the older woman impersonating the "mother" or "la Comare" (photos 12 and 13 below). Both women were seriously crying by the time they were within sight of each other, and when I looked around, I realized that almost all the women in the crowd were crying as well (photo 14 below).
There are numerous miracles connected to the "cult of Santa Gemma."
There are numerous miracles connected to the "cult of Santa Gemma." For example, during World War II, when the Germans tried to enter with tanks into the church, the door restricted them. A soldier took munitions into the church, but he fled because a young woman appeared and said, "Go away, this is my house." She was, of course, Santa Gemma. Another time, the front lines were supposed to go through the village, which would have been very destructive, and instead two meters of snow fell, saving the town. Again the people gave the credit to Santa Gemma. So it wasn't surprising to learn, at the end of the festival this year, that the villagers believe Santa Gemma performed yet another miracle when the recent earthquake happened. The fact that the Church of Santa Gemma and her feast house suffered the most damage is considered to be evidence that the saint took the catastrophe onto herself and spared the village. No wonder the villagers were so emotional!
The fact that the Church of Santa Gemma and her feast house suffered the most damage is considered to be evidence that the saint took the catastrophe onto herself and spared the village. No wonder the villagers were so emotional!
The central miracle connected to Santa Gemma and her feast day is the story of events around her death in 1426. After her death but before her funeral, according to Christina, a high priest arrived from Rome. Gemma had two crosses in her hands and he took one of them. As he tried to leave the village, lightning struck him. He had to return and replace the cross in her funeral box. In later years, another priest arrived and opened the box of her burial to find her corpse "uncorrupted." (This bears an uncanny similarity to stories of Buddhist and Taoist monks whose bodies also do not corrupt but remain in pristine condition after death.) Naturally, after that a great veneration for her arose among the populace and she has been celebrated since then (with apparently a "void of documentation period" between the 17th and 18th centuries). The current tradition of a meeting of the two villages has taken place since the 18th century, with Gemma arriving from the other village since the 19th century.
In case this story seems fanciful or folkloric, let me share with you how the festivities ended that day. Together the townspeople returned to the area across the street from Gemma's damaged church where the tent was set up. We all entered the tent sanctuary where, lo and behold, Saint Gemma herself was on display in the front of the makeshift church. She looked like Sleeping Beauty in her precious display case (photo 15 below), her painted face nicely enhanced by a special team of people trained for that purpose (we were told). There were images of Gemma everywhere in the church in the two oil paintings carried in the procession, embroidered on the tablecloth that covered the altar (photo 16 below), in textiles wrapped around a central tent pole near the priests, and in a large iconic statue at the front of the church showing Gemma with her cross (used to reproach the nobleman who tried to rape her) (photo 17 below).
In Italy, a festival like this is anything but unusual or anachronistic.
In Italy, a festival like this is anything but unusual or anachronistic. These festivals take place in tiny mountain villages all over the country and throughout the entire year. The old fertility or calendar rituals have been attached to various Catholic saints and incorporated to some extent, but obvious relics from the pagan times remain resolutely in the foreground. Enfolded into this particular Catholic mass, conducted on a microphone by white-robed priests in a makeshift church tent, unabashedly honoring the "uncorrupted" body of a yogini-like saint from the 14th century, are the remnants of some ancient spring ritual in which women baked bread for the community in celebration of the cyclic return of the Maiden to the Mother. Even at this late date in history, and with all the cynicism that abounds today in the public realm, these villagers are actively and eagerly participating in ritually bringing our world back into balance one more time. It has never been so clear to me how the ancient matriarchal culture continues to flourish just beneath the surface of the modern world that has rejected it. Like an underground stream, the Goddess continues to bubble to the surface, kept alive in these festivals that refuse to forget her, and powerful in their capacity to reawaken even the most jaded among us.