An in-depth profile on the Madonna of Montevergine is drawing greater attention to the Italian third-gender femminielli and the wider LGBTQ community who participate in an annual pilgrimage to this ancient Neapolitan shrine.
As reported by Kittredge Cherry on the QSpirit blog, devotees of the Madonna of Montevergine have joined with Italian activists who support full LGBTQ inclusion in the Catholic Church to adopt this Madonna as a patron saint due to a professed miracle in which she saved a mid-13th century male couple from attempted murder because of their love for one another.
In the ensuing centuries, this small town and the annual procession it hosts have become a site of pilgrimage for many in the Italian LGBTQ community. Located 30 miles east of Naples in southern Italy, nearly 2 million pilgrims and other visitors travel to the abbey on Montevergine annually to visit the byzantine icon of Mary. Cherry describes the icon as “12 feet high and six feet wide…the focal point of an ornate sanctuary loaded with colorful treasures of religious art.”
She further describes the most popular day of the year for visitors to this sacred site:
“Montevergine’s biggest and queerest procession happens every year on Candlemas (Feb. 2), the feast of the Purification of Mary. Among the pilgrims are genderbending devotees of Mary, known as ‘femminielli,’ a traditional third-gender people who are just beginning to get attention from scholars in English.”
While English-language writers may just be beginning to pay attention to femminielli and the pilgrims to Montevergine, this tradition has long been recognized in Italian circles. In a letter sent to Pope Francis in 2014, Italian trans parliamentarian Vladimir Luxuria expressed the sentiments of Montevergine pilgrims as follows:
“The community of faithful has always expressed its desire not to feel excluded by the Catholic community, without its gender identity or sexual orientation being considered a spiritual obstacle, a denial of the right to faith that should be guaranteed to all.’”
One significant femminielli representation appears in a painting by Guiseppe Bonito, entitled ‘Il Femminiello’. In this 18th-century painting, two people with masculine features are standing together, one young and one slightly older. The older femminiello is dressed in traditionally feminine clothing and preparing to wear a beaded necklace that the other is presenting with an expression that Cherry describes as ‘playful’.
While the painter’s intentions for the artwork are unclear, it stands as a unique portrayal of non-gender-conforming lives in historical European art. David Getsy of the Art Institute of Chicago says that paintings such as ‘Il Femminiello’ serve as “singular evidence that there were culturally sanctioned and official forms of gender nonconformity” that stretch back far further than our current conversations.
To further explain the long-lasting influence of the femminielli community, Cherry pulls a significant quote from the 2017 book, Talking Bodies: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Embodiment, Gender and Identity, which explains that:
“The Neapolitan femminielli, traditional figures of men ‘impersonating’ women, can be seen as important precursors not only for today’s trans women, but also for individuals embodying the idea of a third gender.”
The influence of Montevergine is felt beyond the shrine’s precincts as well. In 2017, the nearby Ospedaletto d’Alpinolo became home to the first gender-neutral bathroom in the country during that year’s Candlemas celebration, and now bears a sign at the town entrance declaring the town as “against homotransphobia and gender violence.”
Still, the growth of queer pilgrims to Montevergine has not been without its official detractors. In 2002, Abbot Tarcisio Nazzaro, who leads the abbey where the icon is housed, loudly criticized what he saw as a ‘shame’ upon the Church, but within days was made to issue an official retraction and statement of welcome. This and a full account of one such procession was described by Annabel Howard in The White Review, concluding that the experience was one of many contradictions:
“One woman just laughs and gestures to the church. ‘For the Madonna it’s always a party. You sing the songs from your heart or not at all.’ Then the icon comes into view. She is ugly, broken and utterly serene as the bobs over the heads of the large assorted crowd that has come to sing her praises. The woman looks at her with adoration. So do the femminielli, and so do the priests. The contradictions seem extraordinary, but then again, perhaps this is what makes this celebration, such as it is, an inevitability.”
There are few such fervent celebrations of both Catholic faith and queer identity, and the pilgrimage to Montevergine stands out as an exception. For those seeking to find historical areas of understanding between the church and LGBTQ populations, the tradition and persistence of grace found in this small Neapolitan town may come as a welcome example.
Catherine Buck, June 21, 2018