XXXI. SOUTHERN SAINTLINESS
Southern saints, like their worshippers, put on new faces and vestments in the course of ages. Old ones die away; new ones take their place. Several hundred of the older class of saint have clean faded from the popular memory, and are now so forgotten that the wisest priest can tell you nothing about them save, perhaps, that "he's in the church" - meaning, that some fragment of his holy anatomy survives as a relic amid a collection of similar antiques. But you can find their histories in early literature, and their names linger on old maps where they are given to promontories and other natural features which are gradually being re-christened.
Such saints were chiefly non-Italian: Byzantines or Africans who, by miraculous intervention, protected the village or district of which they were patrons from the manifold scourges of medi-aevalism; they took the place of the classic tutelar deities. They were men; they could fight; and in those troublous times that is exactly what saints were made for.
With the softening of manners a new element appears. Male saints lost their chief raison d'etre, and these virile creatures were superseded by pacific women. So, to give only one instance, Saint Rosalia in Palermo displaced the former protector Saint Mark. Her sacred bones were miraculously discovered in a cave; and have since been identified as those of a goat. But it was not till the twelfth century that the cult of female saints began to assume imposing dimensions.
Of the Madonna no mention occurs in the songs of Bishop Paulinus (fourth century); no monument exists in the Neapolitan catacombs. Thereafter her cult begins to dominate.
She supplied the natives with what orthodox Christianity did not give them, but what they had possessed from early times - a female element in religion. Those Greek settlers had their nymphs, their Venus, and so forth; the Mother of God absorbed and continued their functions. There is indeed only one of these female pagan divinities whose role she has not endeavoured to usurp - Athene. Herein she reflects the minds of her creators, the priests and common people, whose ideal woman contents herself with the duties of motherhood. I doubt whether an Athene-Madonna, an intellectual goddess, could ever have been evolved; their attitude towards gods in general is too childlike and positive.
South Italians, famous for abstractions in philosophy, cannot endure them in religion. Unlike ourselves, they do not desire to learn anything from their deities or to argue about them. They only wish to love and be loved in return, reserving to themselves the right to punish them, when they deserve it. Countless cases are on record where (pictures or statues of) Madonnas and saints have been thrown into a ditch for not doing what they were told, or for not keeping their share of a bargain. During the Vesuvius eruption of 1906 a good number were subjected to this "punishment," because they neglected to protect their worshippers from the calamity according to contract (so many candles and festivals = so much protection).
For the same reason the adult Jesus - the teacher, the God - is practically unknown. He is too remote from themselves and the ordinary activities of their daily lives; he is not married, like his mother; he has no trade, like his father (Mark calls him a carpenter); moreover, the maxims of the Sermon on the Mount are so repugnant to the South Italian as to be almost incomprehensible. In effigy, this period of Christ's life is portrayed most frequently in the primitive monuments of the catacombs, erected when tradition was purer.
Three tangibly-human aspects of Christ's life figure here: the bambino-cult, which not only appeals to the people's love of babyhood but also carries on the old traditions of the Lar Familiaris and of Horus; next, the youthful Jesus, beloved of local female mystics; and lastly the Crucified - that grim and gloomy image of suffering which was imported, or at least furiously fostered, by the Spaniards.
The engulfing of the saints by the Mother of God is due also to political reasons. The Vatican, once centralized in its policy, began to be disquieted by the persistent survival of Byzantinism (Greek cults and language lingered up to the twelfth century); with the Tacitean odium fratrum she exercised more severity towards the sister-faith than towards actual paganism. [Footnote: Greek and Egyptian anchorites were established in south Italy by the fourth century. But paganism was still flourishing, locally, in the sixth. There is some evidence that Christians used to take part in pagan festivals.]