altareA PRECIOUS JEWEL, HIDDEN IN THE HEART OF ITALY celebrated 350 years of life

Father Antonio Santantoni a.santantoni @

photo and English version by Benedetta Tintillini

Millions of people have seen it (or glimpsed) passing by, but few, very few know about it. Thousands of people read its name every day, passing quickly on the large E 45 highway, from Rome to Venice and Ravenna, but only few stop, yielding to an impulse of curiosity. The name raises some amazement – Madonna dei Bagni means Our Lady of the Bath – but then everyone can think that it should be one of thousands of small churches that dot the Italian countryside, the Umbrian one in particular. Tens, hundreds of times people switch and go by, without taking the time to go to see what lies behind those bricks and that strange name. Until one day …

maiolicaUntil one day, for some fortunate circumstance – a wedding, a party, a bus trip, a day spent without definite destination – the opportunity comes. And you say: finally I see this church a hundred times snubbed, what will I discover there?

You enter and…it leaves you breathless! That little church is revealed to you for what it is: a treasure chest, a museum, a small miracle. Under that humble gable roof (long? Not so much! … Maybe twenty meters more or less) you can find even a small dome all contained within, except for the graceful lantern sticking out from the ridge of the roof and from the outside you wonder what’s there for.

Architecturally it is a Greek cross inscribed in a rectangle at the top turns into a game of vaults and in the most elegant dome that gives light and warmth to the entire structure.

maiolica2But it is not the architectural elegance of the church to affect the passing tourist. Italy is full of beautiful churches, large and small. But here, the Madonna del Bagno (the philologically correct name of the small sanctuary, which later became, no one knows why dei Bagni), there is something that nowhere else in Italy you can see in the same extent: the interior walls are almost completely covered with ceramic tiles of Deruta, about 700, a small world with thousands of human figures, animals, plants and machines included in the context of their lives – the house, the fields, the river, the workshop, the prison, the car, the train, the well, the prison camp, the operating room, the bike, the bicycle, the earthquake, the bomb that explodes in the battlefield, and it goes on and on …

It is an impressive gallery of human situations that allow us to piece together an extraordinary insight of three and a half centuries of history, the human reality of this small portion of the middle Tiber valley, what geologists do reconstructing the history of a territory studying the succession of the different layers of earth and rock on a natural rock wall or cut expressly for this purpose. More precisely , what it is usually achieved by the same method in archaeological research, where each layer has an age and a civilization assigned based on what its found in the different layers of the excavation.

Here we have one advantage: there is nothing to rebuild, everything is shown live. The clothes, the interiors of the houses, the rural landscape, the river, or the funeral rites of exorcism, the punishment of the pillory and birthing chairs, and coming closer to us, the shape of cars, trains, planes, the style of clothes in 1600, in 1700 and up to the present day.

Luckily we are able to reconstruct the history of this small wonder that, if built in cities like Assisi, Spoleto or Perugia would certainly be among the most visited in Umbria. It all started around 1655, when a merchant form Casalina, named Christofono, was passing through a path that led him to Deruta, right on the edge of the wood.

The man saw on the ground a fragment of a drinking cup, the kind that the travelers always carried in their saddlebags to quench their thirst at the springs or fountains. At the bottom of the cup was – and is still visible – a tiny image of the Madonna. A Madonna seated, with the infant Jesus on her knees. But the child is not sitting, he is caught in the moment in which he refers to his feet on the legs of the Mother, holding hands, in a passionate protective embrace, a sphere with a small cross on top, certainly the world. Touching are the eyes of two characters, caught in the act to look for each other, in a silent dialogue.

The devoted traveler, picked up the fragment and tied it on a young oak tree to not let it be trampled by humans, animals or wagons. A couple of years later, in March 1657, the same merchant passed near that oak tree, but this time his heart was sad: his wife was in bed, seriously ill, indeed, “she was at the end of her life. ” The devote man prayed the Virgin with faith, asking his wife’s healing. In the evening, returning home, he found her “swepting the house.” This episode, which is the basis of the cult kept in this shrine, has survived thanks to two contemporary documents: the votive tile, dated 1657 (which recalls the fact reproducing and still visible just behind what remains of the oak) and a rosatimanuscript by an anonymous writer, of the History of Madonna dei Bagni , written at the same time of the events, which is also concerned to explain why the strange name of the Bagni, because that was the name of that little piece of wood between Casalina and Deruta, due to the constant presence small pools of water from vein stagnant before being absorbed by the ground.

The news of the miracle had spread in a flash. Pilgrims came from all over the district to ask for graces to the tiny Madonna. A process was celebrated to review the case and ended with the recognition of its truth and with the authorization of the construction of a shrine. On September 4th 1657, the foundation stone was laid. Within a few weeks the oratory was ready: the chapel was built around the oak, making its center and its relic. At the foot of the oak, the altar. Thirty years later new church (the present one) was ready, the largest. The original chapel, with appropriate adaptation, became the new presbytery. The young oak, a skeleton now, is the heart. Hanging from its branches still the original piece of tile, the “coccetto”.

The cult of the Sanctuary lives mainly in two times of the year:

Sunday-Monday-Tuesday of Easter there is the festival with processions and a great concourse of people;

September 8 is the liturgical feast of the Sanctuary, with an evening celebration and torchlight procession.

For further information:

Caretaker tel. 075 97.34.55

Rector tel. 075 97.24.232


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