Running Madonna in the Square of Sulmona


Running Madonna – La Madonna che scappa in Piazza

Running Madonna is one of the most important events in Sulmona.

It takes place on Easter Sunday on the biggest and most picturesque square of the town, Garibaldi Square, gathering innumerable crowds of tourists and locals.

The ritual, of a high religious value, acquired with time anthropological references, too, as the local and national media always visited and covered it, showing a deep interest in the event.

Archetypes of the ritual

In order to understand what cultural environment the manifestation derives from, we should turn to one of the most important moments in the history of theater – transition from the medieval liturgical drama, where the central theme was the one of the Christ’s death and his Resurrection, to the “holy performance” (sacra rappresentazione) – Italian ecclesiastical drama.

It is considered a crucial moment for the theater because with the transition from the latin language to the “vulgar” one , “dramatic poetry went out of a closed presbytery and classrooms and filled in the streets.”[1]

One of the most important examples of the liturgical drama, “L’Officium”, is attributed to 1450s, being considered “an incredible monument of religious and cultural life of Sulmona at the dawn of Humanism.”[2]

The document was found in the archives of the Sulmona Cathedral and contains dialogs of four soldiers in a performance of the Passion of Jesus.

Processions with statues would get diffused later, thanks to a great usage of simulacra. These metaphorical processions took on “spectacular and impressive aspects, with codified schemes, starting from the Counter-Reformation.”[3]

This brief historical reconstruction, however, does not let us affirm with certainty that “Running Madonna” derives from “L’Officium” or later manifestations, but offer some thoughts and ideas on probable archetypes in which the ritual finds its roots.

First performances

From the study of local and other archives, a conclusion can be made that the performance is dated prior to 1860.[4]

This one of Sulmona, in fact, is connected to a series of religious manifestations diffused all over Italy and sharing common characteristics. The testimonies are found in Asti, Caltagirone, Capri, Mazara del Vallo, Castelvetrano, Corropoli, etc. The rituals share the central theme of the encounter of Mother and Son and a presence of the statues of the Virgin, the risen Christ, and of Saints or, in some cases, angels announcing the Resurrection of the Christ.

However, the manifestation taking place in Sulmona is different from all others in one particular aspect – the run of the Virgin, recognizing her Son. This element makes it closer to the performances in some “Sicilian places, called Auroras.”[5]

The manifestation

“La Madonna che scappa in piazza” is part of a sacred circle of the Easter period, which starts with Holy Thursday and continues on Good Friday with its Procession of the Dead Christ, organized by the Confraternity of the Holy Trinity.

This manifestation, instead, is overseen by the Confraternity of Santa Maria di Loreto, whose members are easily recognized by their clothes, green half-robe over a white smock.

The square

On the morning of Easter, the Garibaldi Square is occupied by thousands of people, crowds gather everywhere, leaving free only the route that Madonna should follow to reach her risen Son (marked and limited by barriers).

To those who had the honor to attend the event, the square appears picturesque and impressive, dressed in colors, soaked in emotions, anxiety, and expectations. So much, that even long after the event, it is still possible to see and feel it again in the memory, where it remained as a momentary photo.

Crowd occupies everything – terraces, balconies, windows, staircases – everything is literally covered by the curious who, with an anxious enthusiasm, are waiting for 12:00, the hour, when it all begins.

Order of the ritual

While chaos and thrill dominate over the square, on the eastern side, in the 17th century church of San Filippo Neri, another dimension reigns, that of sacrality. Here the Virgin is closed in her pain and, dressed in mourning clothes, weeps for her dead Son, who sacrificed himself to save humanity.

Besides the statue of the Madonna, two statues of saints participate in the ritual, those of Saint Peter and Saint John, whose role is to announce to the Virgin the Resurrection of her Son.

The statues, preceded by a long row of lamp carriers and supported by four members of the Confraternity (lauretani)[6], arrive in the square at 11:30 and begin their walk towards the San Filippo church, where they stop at the threshold.

According to the tradition, before the Virgin leaves her place of solitude, three calls of the Saints announcing the Resurrection of the Christ should take place.

The first one to knock on the door of the church is Saint John, but the Madonna will not respond. The second one to try is Saint Peter, who “succeeds” with the same result, until with the third knock, again by Saint John (beloved apostle of Jesus), the portal opens its doors.

At this moment, the Virgin, still not entirely persuaded by the words of the apostles, leaves the praying place, slowly walking towards the center of the square, followed by the statues of the Saints.

The Madonna proceeds with the same slow pace till the Big Fountain, which is more or less in the middle of the square, and in an atmosphere of suspense and anxiety hears the whisper of the crowd:

–         …here she is coming…

–         …did you see her? No, it’s still early…

–         …have they reached the Big Fountain?…

–         …how much is left?

–         …here we are…

–         Here, coming!

–         I’ve seen her!

–         …Here!…

And while the tension on the faces of brothers of the Confraternity grows together with their concentration, next to the Big Fountain the Virgin sees her risen Son and begins her run to unite with Him that is awaiting her in triumph at the end of the square, under a red canopy between the arches of the aqueduct.

While she is accomplishing her full of hopes run, her appearance changes: the black cloak falls on the ground revealing green clothes, in the right hand a white handkerchief that accompanied her in mournings leaves place for a red rose, while ten doves free themselves into the flight under the thunder of cannons.[7]

Applause, shots, and flight of doves explode in an atmosphere of participation and high emotions, because this is a performance that pulls the strings of one’s soul, calling to the most authentic values, such as a deep bond between a mother and her son. Once they meet each other, they seem to turn back to being simple statues and then become part of the city procession together with the local authorities and members of both Confraternities.

Superstitions and beliefs

Running Madonna is kept under a strict control by the participants. According to tradition and popular belief, if the Madonna completes her run without accidents, the year will be prosperous for the town and abundant harvests. Other elements are considered good omens, too: the flight of doves that should not fly low but go high in the sky, and the cloak of the statue, when falling on the ground to reveal beautiful curls of the Virgin, should free itself easily.


Cercone Franco, La Madonna che scappa in piazza a Sulmona, Sulmona, Libreria Editrice Di Cioccio, 1990.

[1] Cercone 1990, p. 19.

[2] Ivi, p. 21-22.

[3] Ivi, p. 74.

[4] Ivi, p. 62.

[5] Ivi, p. 67.

[6] Ivi, p. 55.

[7] Ivi, p. 57.

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Running Madonna in the Square of Sulmona by Antonella Capaldo translated by Yulia Shcherbakova is distributed with the licence Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International.
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