At the end of the nineteenth century, Angelo De Gubernatis, inserted an article by Gaetano Amalfi about the angel flight in his Magazine of Italian popular traditions and highlighted the fact that it was a quite diffused usage of the “Southern Italy and especially of the Molise”.
But we have to say that today it is impossible to verify the actual presence of the rite, at that time, in the territory of Molise. At the present time, it is quite marginal and not comparable to the tradition in other regions, like, for example, in Campania.
Anyways, in the past, more than one village of Molise could boast this kind of rituals. For example, in Campolieto, the “calata” occurred till sixty years ago on the occasion of San Michele Arcangelo feast (29th of September).
Also in Isernia, there was the usage of a similar representation. The rite took place in Sanfelice Square, where “… in 1925 they organized the “Angels flight” in which two Angels were fastened with a rope, between the Veneziane and Magnante palaces, and successively thrown in the empty space.
We have news about the Flight also in Civitanova del Sannio where the representation took place on the occasion of San Felice martire feast (29th-30th of August).
In Campolieto, Isernia, Civitanova and Montorio, these rituals haven’t occurred for decades, but there is a village of Molise boasting a remarkable survival: Vastogirardi, in province of Isernia, whose Angel Flight was briefly described by Teodoro Busico in 1977.
THE ANGEL FLIGHT IN VASTOGIRARDI
The beginning of July is an important, holydays period in Vastogirardi. In the first two days of the month, they celebrate the “Madonna of the Graces”, with the representation of the Angel Flight, trying to combine popular religiousness with spectacularity. Furthermore, on the 3rd of July the village celebrates its patron saint, San Nicola di Bari, in a different date respect to the other towns.
In Vastogirardi, the Flight tradition is not very old. In fact, as the local sources document, the first edition dates back to 1911. It is an usage borrowed by other cultures and transplanted in Vastogirardi by Vincenzo Nicola Liberatore. At the beginning of the twentieth-century, he wanted to enlarge the chapel dedicated to the “Virgin of the Graces”. After a decade, the chapel became a beautiful church.
At the end of the works, on the occasion of the opening of the enlarged sacred building, Vincenzo Liberatore wanted to celebrate the event in a characteristic and memorable way. So, he looked for something to surprise his fellow villagers. He made carried out a system of pulleys which, linking the church to a house in front of it, allowed to represent the Angel Flight.
They say that some of his fellow villagers were quite sceptical as they considered dangerous making a female child slide in the air, hung to some ropes. So, on the first edition of the Flight, occurred on the 2nd of July 1911, Vincenzo made her daughter, Maria Carmela, interpret the Angel. The representation was successful, but it wasn’t repeated in the next years, also because Vincenzo Liberatore left Vastogirardi to emigrate to America because of the debts derived from the expenses for the enlargement of the church. So, the feast was celebrated without the Angel scene.
But, in 1921, we don’t know which was the input, the Flight was represented again and after other interruptions, it was carried out regularly in the last decades.
The Angel is always represented by a female child, preferably between four and six years old, but, sometimes, also by elder ones. The child wears a scenic costume (a tunic of a single colour and false, decorated wings), fastened to a solid, steel cable through a leather, wadded and velvet-lined sling. The sling provides a pulley mechanism, at which are fastened the legs of the child.
The course of the Flight is about 40 metres long and is performed more than once, at a few metres from the ground. The Angel “flies” from an house balcony to the Madonna statue, placed, on this occasion, in front of the church. The Angel slides along the steel cable through a strong rope, handled by expert men. The flights are accompanied by a band playing music as a soundtrack at each return course. The pulleys system doesn’t allow the Angel to turn, so the child makes her ways always facing the Madonna statue.
In the evening of the 1st of July, at about 9 p.m., the Angel, with white wings and dress, flies three times. First, arrived in front of the simulacrum, she says a prayer to thank the Virgin. The second time, she spreads incense towards the statue. The third time, she throws flowers petals towards the Madonna and then, on the return way, also to the public.
In the morning of the 2nd of July, after midday, the representation repeats with some variations. This time, the Angels wears light blue wings and dress. Moreover, they add to the three flights, according to the scheme of the previous night, a further one (as second passage) in which the Angel gives, in the name of the whole community, a “love-token” to the Virgin, usually consisting of a gold jewel offered by the family of the baby impersonating the Angel.
The two representations of the Flight follow a Mass and precede a procession. The evening procession of the 1st of July goes round the village and at the end the Madonna statue is carried to its church. In the morning of the 2nd of July, the statue is carried to San Nicola’s church, stays there till the day after – the day in which Vastogirardi celebrates its patron saint – and then it is carried back to the original church. The women transport the statue in both the processions. The statue, on the feast occasion, is covered by several gold objects (rings, bracelets, chains, earrings, necklaces) given by believers and applied on the stole.
We wonder if religious reasons contributed in establishing the precise date of the representation: the 2nd of July is the day of the Visitation of Mary, festivity commemorating the meeting between the Virgin and his cousin Elizabeth, as it is written on Luca’s Gospel.
In 1790, the Official Brothers of the “laic Congregation under the title of Blessed Virgin of Visitation of Vastogirardi Land”, with a deed drew up by the “Royal Notary” Francesco Ercoli of Roccasicura, asked, through petitions directed to Ferdinando IV King of the Two Sicilies, the “Royal Approval” of the Rules for a good government of the Confraternity. The first one provides that “every year, on the second day of July, they have to solemnize the feast of Saint Visitation”.
So, Vastogirardi has been celebrating religiously for over two centuries. But, only in 1911 the festivity of the Visitation takes place together with the feast in honour of the “Madonna of the Graces”, characterised by the sacred representation of the Angel Flight, probably conceived also to remember the visitation of the Madonna to her cousin Elizabeth.
So, the celebration date of the Angel Flight of Vastogirardi is not casual.
In fact, Saint Elizabeth and his husband Zaccaria, not succeeding in having children, were the protagonists of an annunciation of an Angel (the Archangel Gabriele).
THE LADY OF THE CASTLEThe Madonna of the Graces of Vastogirardi was also called the “Lady of the castle”. She derives a legend, which is the foundation myth of a cult of Puglia: the Madonna of the Saturday’s, worshipped in Minervino Murge (Bari). This is the story, as people still tell.
In the woods around Vastogirardi, in the resort called “Hill of the Madonna”, a modest, rural chapel rises of which we have just perimetric remains. People went there to venerate the Madonna of the Graces, whose effigy was painted on a wall.
An hermit lived in the surroundings. One night, he dreamt the Madonna saying to him: “Nobody cares about my home. Here everything is in bad state and deserted. Go to the town priest and tell him that the church needs to be restored”.
The next morning, the hermit went to the priest, but this one refused to give him any help. Back to the small chapel, the hermit kneeled in front of the Madonna and tell her what happened.
“If anybody cares about this house, I better choose an other one”.
In fact, in the same night, the fresco of the Virgin of the Graces came out the wall and flew away, passing with a light flash through the wood in front of the small church. While she was passing, every vegetation disappeared, just a furrow, still visible, remained. Since then, nothing more grows up in that part of the wood, called la selva.
Following some cattle-tracking routes, the Madonna image reached Puglia. After finding a cave near Minervino Murge, she decided to stay there until somebody had built in her honour a new and worthy church.
After several years, one Saturday, during an hunting, the dog of the prince Pignatelli, Lord of Minervino, went into that cave. Following his dog, the noble hunter entered into the underground cavity and found the image representing the Virgin with her Child. So, he made built in that place a church, which today has became a shrine dedicated to the Madonna of the Saturday, deriving its name from the finding day.
The fresco was exposed in the shrine and on its back there was written: Madonna of the Graces, Lady of the Castle of Vastogirardi.
The fact that the sacred effigy comes from Vastogirardi is also confirmed by a miraculous episode. In fact, they tell that when they decided to take the wall painting off the finding place to move it to the principal altar of the shrine, nobody was able to lift and carry it. Tens of people tried to do it, also with a little wagon carried by ox, but nothing. That day, four shepherds were outside the church. They were transhumants leading their herds in the surrounding pastures.
Somebody said: “Let us the shepherds try. They were the first ones to worship Mary and her Son. Maybe they will success”.
In fact, the four shepherds, without any efforts, lifted and carried to the altar the very heavy fresco.
When someone asked them where they came from, they answered: “We are shepherds of Vastogirardi”.
Source: “La Fanciulla con le ali” by Mauro Gioielli