Truth or legend? Miracle perhaps, but one thing is certain: in the Naples alleys you breathe the hope and desire of couples wishing to conceive a child.
The cult of fertility finds a home in a place of faith and mystery in the Quartieri Spagnoli.
We cross the city heart-to-heart and without prejudice, with a pair of comfortable shoes.
The chair of Maria Francesca
On the sixth day of each month, you may see a crowd of aspiring parents, or pushchairs with babies, flowing through the narrow and noisy alleys of the Quartieri Spagnoli, who come to pay tribute to Santa Maria Francesca for the received miracle. The cult of Santa Maria Francesca delle Cinque Piaghe (Saint Mary Frances of the Five Wounds) lives in this area of Naples, starting from the Vico Tre Re in Toledo, where there is the house of the so-called “Santarella of the Quartieri Spagnoli“.
Santa Maria Francesca’s life
The Virgin, Naples’ patron saint, was born on March 25 in 1715 and, along with San Gennaro, belonged to the third order regular of Saint Francis.
She was the first woman from Southern Italy canonized by Pius IX on 29 June 1967, after being declared blessed by St Gregory XVI.
Throughout her life course, the saint suffered greatly from various diseases, and to physical suffering was added the psychological one, caused by the persecutions of her father, sisters and many others.
At the age of sixteen, her father tried to marry her to a wealthy young man, but when she refused, he reacted violently, beating and mistreating her. In the end, however, nothing bent Maria Francesca, granting her permission to enter the Third Order Regular of Saint Francis, in September 1731.
Santa Maria Francesca received the stigmata, and every Friday, especially on Fridays of Lent, she felt in her body the pains of the Passion.
The Saint of Motherhood
To her are addressed sterile women or with difficult pregnancies. She is considered the only canonized Neapolitan saint and a sanctuary, that houses her miraculous chair, is dedicated to her.
In one of the rooms of the convent there is an exposition of silver ex-voto, coloured blue or pink cockades, which tell the births occurred after the prayer addressed to Santa Maria Francesca: signs of gratitude for the grace received or even to entrust to her protection the new born.
In the next room, instead, you have to line up to sit on what was her chair, where she rested for the pains of the Passion: who wants to have a child, sits there, embraces the remains and asks for grace, pray and hope; they call it the “chair of miracles“.
The prayer to become a mother
Here is the prayer that women say during the rite at Santa Maria Francesca delle Cinque Piaghe:
“I congratulate you, O First Holy Virgin of the city of Naples, glorious St. Mary Frances, for the abundant favours from heaven to you released; and I beg you to multiply upon me the effects of your charity and protection, by obtaining for me from the Lord that grace, that I so desire (here the grace is asked). And since you commit with your prayers in front of God to obtain it for me, I adore, bless and thank the Most Holy Trinity for the many graces she gave you, especially by having you, not yet come to light, foretold by two distinct prophecies, which then you were a Saint; also to worship Jesus Sacrament from the womb, adorned with gifts and superhuman virtues, and honoured by his familiarity and company almost your whole life, decorating you with all traits, of his Passion, adorning your heart with that supreme seraphic charity towards God and neighbour. Deh, therefore beloved bride of Jesus Christ, let me experience the effects of your protection now that you are in his presence, so that I can find the peace of my heart in the attainment of the requested grace”.
Maria Francesca and the war
The Saint is particularly venerated by the Neapolitan people who today turn to her for every kind of grace and called for her protection during the Second World War.
Story goes that during the world war, the Saint protected people’s houses from the fury of destruction.
Other Neapolitan rites for fertility
In the writings that have handed down these traditions for centuries, it is told of two other chairs of fertility: that of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ chapel in the church of Santa Maria della Sanità and a second, in the church of Santa Maria della Catena, in via Santa Lucia, but also in other areas of Naples we find this kind of rituals.
The cult of Venere in Piedigrotta
In Piedigrotta, in ancient times there was the cult of the “Venus Genitrix”, practiced by brides who called for fertility thanks to the effect of powerful aphrodisiacs.
In the third century A.C., the celebration of the Virgin took the place of the bacchanals (Roman festivities with propitiatory background), but maintaining some colourful features such as allegorical floats, fireworks and songs.
Today the effigy of the Madonna is kept inside the church, here the women who hope to find a husband or are expecting, pay tribute to her with an ex voto in the shape of a shoe: the so-called “scarpunciello d’a Maronna”.
It is in this magical and spiritual continuity between the pagan and Christian world that the “Madonna di Piedigrotta” celebrations are held.
The kiss to San Raffaele
There is also the traditional “vaso a ‘o pesce ‘e San Rafèle”, in English “kiss to the fish of San Raffaele”. The Saint, in a scene of the Book of Tobit, is represented with a fish in his hand, considered by Naples, the sea city, symbol of virility, so in the Church of San Raffaele in Materdei women go to kiss the statue of the Saint.
Donna Concetta in the Fontanelle Cemetery
Among the many “capuzzelle”, so the Neapolitans like to call the skulls of the Fontanelle Cemetery in Naples, there is the one of Donna Concetta: according to the rite you have to caress her to receive the gift of fertility.