The big moment

The Running Madonna, The Madonna Who Runs, and The Runaway Madonna – this Easter event goes by several names.

This is a spectacular event, and one of the biggest events in Italy. It’s been acted out for centuries in Sulmona, a medieval city in Abruzzo. If you get the chance, I strongly urge you to experience The Running of the Madonna in person. You’ll find yourself swept along in the weekend’s highly charged emotional events, which all lead up to a singular, breathtaking moment in Piazza Garibaldi.

Book your travel and accommodations early for the Running of the Madonna!

My precious friends Novelia and Peppe (also residents and superb ambassadors of Sulmona) started enticing me to block out time on my calendar, and book accommodations, well over a year ago. Even securing a room at a B&B almost eight months prior to the event before was a challenge. I almost didn’t get a place.

So what exactly is The Running of the Madonna all about?

Much attention is given to the pivotal moment on Easter Sunday when the Madonna races across Piazza Girabaldi, but the full experience begins on Friday night. Don’t miss it or you’ll be short-changing yourself, and missing out on why the experience on Sunday is so emotional.

The procession begins Friday night

So much heaviness. So much solemnity. You can feel the weight in the air, in the faces, in the body language, in the seriousness of the participants in the procession. This is a funeral procession, after all. Jesus has been crucified and a darkness has come over the world. The procession emanates from a church on the main thoroughfare, and begins with young men in formation carrying tall polls adorned with globes of light. A dark-suited band (reminiscent of a funeral wake in New Orleans), and a seemingly endless men’s chorus, walking in a choreographed side-to-side shuffling formation, sings a lament.

Then, a crucified Jesus is carried from the church, on the shoulders of several men, while stoic and handsomely clad carabinieri stand guard and salute. The the statue of Mary, dressed all in black emerges from the church. She is in mourning.

The procession winds its way through the streets of Sulmona for hours, setting the stage for what is to come Sunday.

Below are a few of the images from the procession. Given the heaviness of the event, I decided to render the photos in black and white (while choosing color for Sunday’s event, which celebrates Christ’s resurrection).

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Easter Sunday is the main event of the Running of the Madonna

It’s best to stake out a place along the barricaded path constructed for the big finale or find accommodations on the square that have a balcony or roof-top view (I was staying at the Sei Stelle B&B, which has a wonderful rooftop terrace). Getting a good spot is competitive, and people can be surprisingly resourceful, and aggressive, at inserting themselves in a prime viewing spot. Can’t say I blame them, but I warn you to be prepared to hold your ground. Otherwise, you can show up at nine in the morning, and by noon, when things are really happening, you can be scratching your head because you’re now three people back. It happens (just ask people who attend Palio in Siena!)

Thanks to my guardian angel, Novelia, she secured a special pass for us to be in the protected center of things, with the newscasters, and paparazzi. How fortunate can a man be – to be attending such a momentous event for the first time while having such an unimpeded few of the action?

While Friday the night event was cloaked in deep colors and sorrow, Sunday’s events were full of color, and ultimately, hope.

Sunday’s procession makes its way to Piazza Girabaldi around ten-thirty, and a mass is held, as the piazza is rapidly filling to an overflow capacity. On this particular Sunday, the rain began to spit intermittently. Fortunately, it never turned into a full-scale downpour. For me, it was a bit of a balancing act – literally – as I carried my umbrella while protecting my Canon 5D Mark III, and my 70-200mm zoom lens.

Breaks in the weather came and went. In fact, the path for the Running of the Madonna was beginning to look a bit perilous. But, as if the heavens were shining on the day, the rain stopped for the big moment when the Madonna, in the same black mourning cloak, emerges from the Chiesa di San Filippo Neri, opposite the aqueduct, where the statue of the newly risen Christ has been placed.

But, the mood is still heavy. After all, Mary has not yet been convinced (by the Apostle John and Apostle Peter, who have been accompanying her) that her son is resurrected. Then, at the crucial moment, Mary sees her son, and in a flash, her black mourning attire vanishes, revealing her rich green attire that has been lurking beneath. Simultaneously doves are released into the air.

And, then Mary runs like crazy

…on the back of six men (Lauretani dressed in white and green) who are booking it, across the piazza at breakneck speed, to the statue of Jesus. The crowd goes wild, and Handel’s Hallelujah chorus seems to emerge from the clouds above. Emotions erupt, and tears flow freely. People rush to embrace one another.

Yes, there is hope.

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I hope I’ve been able to transport you, in some small way, to The Running of the Madonna. While I’m happy with the images I captured, they’re no substitute for being there in the flesh and feeling the profound emotions of such a revered event.

In closing, I once again offer my deepest gratitude to Novelia Giannantonio and her husband Peppe for their boundless generosity. if you’re looking for a place to stay in Sulmona contact Novelia about her lovely spacious two-bedroom Casa di Cuore which she rents out (I can put you in touch with her, just send me a note through my contact link). She and Peppe will make sure you’re pointed in the right direction about things to do.