Maratea and its Patron, a saint who came from the sea

There is an unwavering sentiment that distinguishes all Marateans, the feeling of profound devotion and love that binds them inextricably to Saint Blaise, Patron and Protector of the city. The beginning of the worship of the Holy Martyr has ancient origins and dates back to the period of Iconoclasm. According to legend, at the time of the Iconoclastic persecutions, in the 8th century AD, the saint’s relics were brought from Armenia to Maratea; in reality, the ship containing the sacred remains was apparently heading for Rome, but due to bad sea conditions it was pushed by impetuous waves to the small island of Santo Janni. Once on the island, the urn containing the chest of Saint Blaise was cloaked in a dazzling halo, so bright that the light was visible to all the inhabitants of Maratea. Faced with this prodigious event, the Armenians decided to leave the relics of the saint in the hands of the locals, who then took them to the Sanctuary on the top of the mountain.

From then on, the Sanctuary became a source of pride and deep faith for the people of Maratea, as well as a destination for pilgrims from all over the world, who came there to pray to the miracle-working Saint, especially for healing illnesses related to the throat. The Sanctuary also became the site of the miracle of the Manna; the miracle once took place at more or less regular intervals and consisted of the Manna, a kind of water, pouring out of the urn containing the Saint’s relics and from the columns of the Chapel, which was then collected and distributed to the needy in special reliquaries. According to popular belief, the Manna is an unexpected phenomenon and represents the sweat that the Martyr would produce during his intercession with God in order to save people from their sins, which is why it is a source of concern when it is abundant. A very important date for Maratea was May 3, 1941, when the Sanctuary acquired the title of Basilica. On that occasion, the sacred urn was also recognised and moved to the Chapel dedicated to the Saint and known as the Regia Cappella. This event was attended by many believers and the miracle of the Manna was repeated amidst the emotion and excitement of all.

Saint Blaise is credited with many miracles in favour of Maratea, testifying to the deep bond between the saint and the pearl of the Tyrrhenian Sea; popular memory recalls the saint’s salvation miracle during the Second World War. According to the testimony of an allied pilot, it seems that he was unable to bomb Maratea because the city was covered by a thick fog that made it impossible to hit the targets, so much so that the bombs he dropped fell into the sea unexploded, and because when he tried to hit the Basilica, the image of the Saint appeared to him several times, making him give up.

The Basilica of San Biagio (Saint Blaise), built on the homonymous mountain at the highest point of the town of Maratea, called the castle, houses the remains of the patron saint. The place of worship is characterised by simple, linear architectural forms, a façade with a classical profile and an entrance portico with three arches. On the tympanum, in a niche, there is a small statue of Saint Blaise, dating back to 1600, which is affectionately called Sambiasello by the people of Maratea, due to its small size. The interior is Romanesque in style, also very basic in its architectural lines and undecorated, all in the name of simplicity and sobriety. Unfortunately, there is no certain information about the construction of the Basilica, but it was probably originally a Basilian monastery, which in 732 housed the Holy Relics of Saint Blaise and for this reason became a church. The importance of the strategic geographical position on which the place of worship stands was recognised immediately, so much so that under the Lombards it became the site of military fortifications and towers, as well as the first refuge for the inhabitants of Blanda, refugees who gave life to the first community of Maratea, that of Maratea Superiore. The church was remodelled several times over the centuries and was gradually expanded until 1700, when it began to take on its current appearance with the construction of the portico and bell tower. It then underwent other changes until 1963, when Count Rivetti had all the additions removed, returning the church to the ancient and sober simplicity that still characterises it today. The most important part inside the Basilica is the ‘Regia Cappella’ (Royal Chapel), completely covered in marble, named so not because of a reference to royalty, but almost certainly to underline the extraordinary importance it holds for the inhabitants, since it houses the real heart of Maratea: the Relics of Saint Blaise.

The crowds of worshippers who have been coming to the town on the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea for years in devotion to Saint Blaise and seeking a miracle from him do so on two occasions in particular: February 3 in memory of the Saint’s martyrdom, when the ritual of the blessing of the throat and the distribution of blessed bread bearing the Martyr’s effigy takes place, and the first Saturday in May when the silver bust of the Martyr is carried in procession through the streets of Maratea, thus opening the celebrations for the annual event, the Feast of the Translation. The celebration lasts for a week and culminates on the second Sunday in May when the Statue is returned to the Basilica. The procession winds its way along a path on the slope of Mount San Biagio, passing by panoramic viewpoints offering unique and breathtaking landscapes. The celebrations follow a series of rituals: after the first procession on Saturday, there is a special supplication known as the “forty hours” supplication; on the following Thursday, the simulacrum is taken to Capocasale (formerly Maratea Inferiore), stripped of the red cloak that covers it and dressed with the episcopal insignia, before being entrusted to the mayor, who symbolically hands it the keys to the city.
The custom of covering the statue of the saint with a red cloak to symbolise martyrdom and episcopal dignity has not always existed, but refers to a disagreement in 1871 between the parish priests of the two settlements into which Maratea was once divided. The parish priest of Maratea Superiore, who has always been the guardian of the Saint’s relics, and the parish priest of Maratea Inferiore, who claimed the role of the other part of the town in the celebration. It took several years to settle these disputes over religious jurisdiction, until 1833 when the Bishop of the time established the ceremony of the festivities. The celebrations continue on Saturday with the procession “on land”, passing through the streets of the town and blessing the sea from Pietra del Sole, and end on Sunday morning, the second Sunday in May, when the saint returns to the castle (formerly Maratea Superiore) to his basilica, a true sacred casket not only of the holy relics but also of Maratea’s civil and sacred history.

* foto di Biagio Calderano

According to tradition, the statue of the patron saint is only carried on the shoulders of members of the Confraternity of Saint Blaise. There is no certain data on the origin of this group, but it is thought to be the descendants of the ancient Confraternity of Saint Biase, most probably founded in 1400 with the primary aim of spreading the worship of the Martyr. The members of the Confraternity are believers who play a particularly prestigious role, and can be recognised by their ‘uniform’, as they are dressed in a white tunic and headdress, a red cincture tied around the waist and a sort of red cape on the shoulders with the effigy of the Saint.
Over the years, the Confraternity has also carried out work at its own expense in the Basilica of San Biagio and in the chapel that houses the Saint’s relics. Being a member of the Confraternity of Saint Blaise has always been an honour for the people of Marateo, a source of pride and prestige given their special bond with and devotion to the healer Saint. The group is very closed, the right to join is handed down from father to son, and outsiders are only allowed to join if one of the members dies childless, but entry to the Confraternity is reserved for members of the deceased member’s family.