The women began gathering at Varo Church late in the afternoon on Good Friday. Dressed in black from head to toe, with a medallion of the Madonna hanging from royal purple ribbons around their necks, they began final preparations for a Christian ritual that has been performed for centuries in the town of Taormina, Sicily.
In the center of the nave, a large icon of Mother Mary surrounded by white roses and lilies stood affixed to a gold leaf wooden table. At twilight, twelve female bearers would squat beneath long wooden poles attached to the blessed statue and rise as one. Down treacherous steps and cobblestone streets to the doors of the cathedral – the Duomo – they would bear her, where twelve fresh women would step in for the next leg to Santa Caterina church. And so it would go, from church to church, until the sorrowful Mother returned to Varo, where she would repose until the following year’s Good Friday procession.
One of the bearers, Vera Bambara, explained the symbolism of the procession, which attempts to recreate conditions as they would have been in the time of Christ. “Our black apparel is a symbol of the grief of Mother Mary as she accompanied Christ during his agonizing walk to his crucifixion. We carry lanterns lit only by candles because there were no lamps in those days, and only women are allowed to carry the Madonna, because only women can truly know her tears.”
So many apply for the honor of carrying the Virgin Mother that bearers must be chosen by lottery each year. Those who are not selected pin black lace Mantillas to their heads and walk solemnly through the streets in columns on either side of the bier, carrying candle-lit red torches.
Though meant to be a sorrowful reenactment, I felt only joy and a strong sense of community. Congregants greeted each other with arms thrown wide and double kisses on cheeks, Italian style. Little girls dressed in pure white ran excitedly up and down the aisle, burning off sugar highs. Elderly couples, sweetly holding hands, climbed the stone steps to the church and made their way to the center of the nave, where they kissed their fingertips and reverently touched the Madonna.
This, I thought, is how church should be. Noisy. Full of life. Earlier that week, tourists visiting Santa Caterina Church had chastised me with their eyes when I greeted people I knew inside the church, apparently too loud for their sensibilities. Who decided that God demands silence in His house?
The din multiplied as the time to step off approached. Instructions were shouted from the pulpit and the icon-bearers stepped into place. Candles inside the red glassine lanterns were lit and women slowly descended the steps of the church two-by-two, forming parallel columns along opposite sides of the street, creating a pathway for the priest, followed by the Madonna, with a brass band bringing up the rear.
On the main street, the women of Varo merged with processions from other Taromina churches. Some carried statues of Jesus on the cross. One group of men sagged under the weight of a life-size statue of Jesus reposing in an illuminated glass coffin. Onlookers and participants converged at the Duomo, where, after some confusion, the entire procession reversed direction in order to make appearances at each of the town’s main churches. I followed as far as Santa Catalina Church, where I stepped inside to rest and admire the elaborate Easter display set up at the altar.
When I finally left Santa Catalina on that moonless night, the streets were pitch black. Concentrating on my footing, I was startled when columns of black-clad women overtook me, hours after the ceremony had begun. They passed in silence, invisible but for their lanterns and eerie disembodied heads, glowing like hundreds of red apples bobbing on the surface of an ebony sea.
Goosebumps rose on my arms and a shiver ran down my back as I pressed against the cold, Medieval stone buildings. Seconds after the long columns passed, shops reopened and the streets were awash in light. Taormina once again donned its touristy mask and the spell was broken, but for those few brief hours I experienced the true essence of this ancient town on the east coast of Sicily.