The irresistible lure of the side-track produces a strange tale from Burgio …

7 July, 2010

This week I took a bus south from Palermo through the panoramic  countryside of vines, olive groves and sweeping tracts of golden stubble almost to the south coast. I was visiting a recently opened Ceramics Museum in the small hill town of Burgio. The museum, housed in a beautifully restored 16th century convent, was well worth the visit. But more of that another time! At the end of my visit, I was lured, not at all unwillingly, down a side-track that  produced the most intriguing tale of the byzantine icon that once again resides in Burgio’s main church, the 12th century Chiesa Madre.

The attendant at the ceramics museum was a young girl who had grown up in Burgio, and was both knowledgeable and passionate about the town. She had the sort of ‘passion for place’ that I am often struck by here. and rarely encounter outside Sicily. Or perhaps it’s just that on this subject  Sicilians tend to be particularly eloquent!  As I was leaving the museum, she asked if I had already visited the small church next door, the church of S. Maria delle Grazie. When I said I hadn’t, she said I really must see it, and offered to accompany me. Had she not, I might never have heard the story of how a precious byzantine icon had been stolen during the 1960s and returned more than 25 years later.

Before she got to the story, however, the attendant pointed to a large statue on the side wall of the church, a 17th century statue of St. Anna, mother of the Madonna. It was surrounded by an ornate wooden frame with four empty niches, and at each side an empty pedestal.  She explained that in each niche, and on each pedestal, there had been a small, but valuable, statue.  Seven years ago, the church had been broken into and all the statues stolen. Then, two months later, there was another break-in; this time, two valuable busts were stolen from beside the altar and a picture from the other side wall. The glass in front of the picture had been broken and the pieces left on the floor. Presumably the picture had been rolled up, and the frame broken into pieces, for easy removal. Nothing has been heard of any of these items since. When I expressed surprise that there has been no trace, that nothing has appeared in shops, she said: “It’s likely they are in private collections. These people know what is valuable. They know what they’re looking for”.

By this time she had warmed to her subject and asked if I had yet been to see the town’s main church, Chiesa Madre. Then she proceeded to tell me the strange story of the byzantine icon.

This icon, probably from the 13th century, portrays the Madonna with baby Jesus in her arms.  It had, for centuries, been venerated in Burgio. In the early 1960s, because various objects had been stolen from churches, the elderly parish priest decided to remove the icon from the church and put it in the house of a relative for safe keeping. Several months later, however, in 1964, the icon disappeared. The people of the town accused the priest and his relatives, who consistently maintained their innocence, but were never able to clear their names.  Two years later, the priest died – it is said, of grief.

Despite continued and extensive efforts, no trace of the icon was ever found. It had, it seemed, simply disappeared.

Then, in 1992, 28 years later, a strange thing happened.

During a religious festival in Catania, the Archbishop, monsignor Luigi Bommarito, received a request that he personally hear a confession. Until 1988, Bommarito had been Bishop of Agrigento, which meant that he was very familiar with the story of the icon that had been stolen from the Chiesa Madre; Burgio fell within his diocese. He agreed to the request and heard the confession in the cathedral of Catania.  At the confessional a masculine voice said: “On the pew next to this confessional there is a parcel, wrapped in newspaper. Put the contents back where they belong”. The unknown penitent then disappeared. As soon as he opened the parcel, Bommarito realised what he had in his possession. Whether he knew, or suspected, the identity of the penitent, we shall never know. What we do know is that he contacted the parish priest from Burgio, who together with a delegation of the town’s citizens, came to collect the precious item. The work was then expertly restored by the director of the Central Institute or Restoration in Rome, Dr Nicolo’ Mario Gammoino, and returned to its position in Chiesa Madre. Its return was celebrated by a huge party in the town.  

Now curious to see the icon, I thanked the museum attendant and followed her directions to Chiesa Madre. Inside the church, however, I could see no sign of the icon. Not surprisingly, given the town’s  history, there were attendants at the entrances to all the churches I went into in Burgio, so I went back to ask the attendant here if, in fact, the icon was in the church.  He mumbled something, led me back into the church and set off towards a chapel, that was in total darkness, on the right hand side of the altar. Then he went off to the side , switched on the light, and there above the altar was the icon in an ornate, dark wooden frame. I began to ask him about it, but he said he knew very little  – I would have to ask his wife. After a few minutes, he switched off the light and we made our way out of the church.  His wife was nowhere to be seen.

Even if the church attendant wasn’t particularly forthcoming, the story of the icon is obviously well-known in Burgio. On the way back to Sciacca, the nearby seaside town where I was staying, the bus driver told me that both the Archbishop, monsignor Luigi Bommarito, and the parish priest often tell it from the pulpit.

2 Responses to “The irresistible lure of the side-track produces a strange tale from Burgio …”

  1. Sally F Says:

    Someone must have a grand palazzo full of religious loot … I wonder if his or her conscience ever pricks …

    • kateludlow Says:

      Occasionally, it seems, stolen treasure has been retrieved from private residences, but how much more there must be! I am intrigued by the stories I have been coming upon.

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