Close to Deruta, famous for its majolica pottery, you’ll find a small sanctuary for the Madonna dei Bagni. A little chapel that was erected in1657 close to a water reservoir; il Bagno, houses a cult that is pouring out its love for the mother of Jesus. This little place with its specific history feels hart-warming to me although I wasn’t raised in any religion and my beliefs are closer to Baruch Spinoza’s thoughts on divinity than anything else.
One March day in the 1657’s a mercenary called Cristoforo from the nearby town Casalina passes an oak tree on his way home. He’s immersed in troubled thoughts. His wife is dying and he has lost all hope. When passing the oak tree his eye falls on a small majolica plate that lies at the foot of the tree. What turns out to be a saucer depicts the Madonna with child. He carefully picks up the little plate and puts it up in the tree so that no man or beast will trample on the holy image. Then he sinks on his knees in a spontaneous prayer. Returning home he not only finds his wife fully recovered, but even sweeping the kitchen floor! And so starts the cult of the Madonna del Bagno.
The very same year of this miraculous recovery a little chapel was erected including the oak tree in which the little amulet was hung. The papacy didn’t know what to think of it. It reeked of old-fashioned goddess worshipping, but then again it attracted masses of devoted people seeking the Madonna’s intervention. Soon enough the cult was approved as bonafide Christian and people started leaving little gifts or ex voti for the virgin mother on which they expressed their deep gratitude.
These ex voti are still here today as is the original saucer and the oak tree, albeit dead now. Rectangular colourful majolica plates depict the hardship people have overcome through the centuries. In the 1700’s we see a man praying on his sickbed, a person falling out of a tree his or her pruning knife still in hand, people being assaulted by a bull, or a man possessed by the devil. When we’re getting closer to modern times, we suddenly see a young man hit by a huge car, a soldier coming back from the Second World War or a patient surviving open heart surgery. The plates are as recent as 2020. They all state P.G.R. Per grazia ricevuta: thankful for your grace.
The church seems unaware of a much older Jewish forbearer of the Madonna
To me, the cult seems pretty pagan worshipping a mother goddess although the church tries to emphasise that this is in fact the mother of God. They are probably blissfully unaware of a millennia older forbearer of the Madonna of whom we can still find traces in the Old Testament or more precisely the Hebrew Bible. Her name is Asherah, who was worshipped as the mother goddess. Inscriptions found in the Sinai desert indicate her as the companion of JHWH, the god of the Jews who is worshipped as their only god today. Asherah was associated with trees that were considered a symbol for fertility. And not just any tree. The Hebrew word for goddess is ela which is closely related to the Hebrew words elon and allon which mean oak tree.
Jewish religion pivoted towards monotheism, probably around the time the Jews were allowed to return from their exile in Babylonia. Although their God is everything and everywhere and therefor also female the Jewish god has very strong paternal and masculine traits. With the coming of Christ a part of the Jews decided that the Messiah had finally come. Their group developed into what we now know to be Christians. They kept a lot of their original religion but it seems that they realised that no one can do without a mother. Not even God.
More about Madonna dei Bagni on https://www.madonnadelbagno.it/storia/
More about Asherah on https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/asherahasherim-bible
More about the Hebrew Bible in K. Van der Toorn; Scribal culture and the making of the Hebrew Bible.