The Beach, the Basilica and the Blessed Mother
On the Italian island of Sardinia, on a hill overlooking the Gulf of Cagliari, sits the splendid 14th-century Basilica di Nostra Signora di Bonaria—the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Air.
The basilica got its name when the Blessed Mother was credited for restoring clean, healthy air to the area after it had been hit by malaria. Because of other miraculous events that occurred in the waters near Cagliari, Mary is also regarded as the guardian of its sailors. And tradition has it that conquistadors named the capital of Argentina Buenos Aires, as a way of extending their devotion to Mary, under this name, to the New World.
One can easily see that Sardinia is rich in history, tradition and folklore. Exotic, mysterious, independent and introspective—Sardinia is a land rich in religious and cultural history. The Church of Our Lady of Bonaria in the ancient seaport town of Cagliari is a living monument to its vibrant history.
Situated approximately 125 miles west of mainland Italy, Sardinia lies 22 miles south of its little sister Corsica, and 90 miles north of the Mediterranean coast of Africa. Second in size to Sicily by just a couple of miles, Sardinia's landmass is shaped like a large footprint.
In recent decades, the island has become famous for its glorious strip of emerald waters, rocky beaches and clandestine coves; the Costa Smeralda is a favored summer resort for Europe's rich and beautiful. Relatively unknown to tourists, the remaining regions of the island are serene, natural and raw, and steeped in religious and spiritual traditions and folklore which span centuries and cultures.
Sardinia's rugged hills are dotted with grazing sheep, punctuated by marshes, and speckled with vibrant wildflowers and aromatic herbs. Its long stretches of stony and sandy beaches have set the backdrop for political, economic and religious intrigue for centuries. It became a part of Italy in the late 19th century; in prior centuries it was invaded by the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Moors, the Aragonese, the Spanish, the Genoans, the Pisans, the Venetians, the Lombards and the Austrians.
Throughout Sardinia's long history of military conflict, the Catholic Church managed to remain a constant and strong force here—thanks to the missionary activity of the mainland Europeans. An intriguing array of monasteries, churches and convents, built by various European religious orders, is scattered around the island.
The Church of Our Lady of Bonaria, founded by Aragonese friars, is one of these. In 1323, King Infante Alfonso of Aragon invaded the town of Cagliari, with the intention of conquering the Pisans who were in possession of the seaport town. Successful in the effort, he eventually built a castle and a church.
Two years later, the king donated the church to an order of friars whose task it was to “ransom” Christian slaves from the Moors, a work which was booming in Cagliari. The Order of Our Lady of Mercy, also known as the Mercedarian Fathers, was founded in Barcelona by St. Peter Nolasco, and the order retains custodianship of the shrine of Our Lady of Bonaria to this day.
A Storm Suddenly Subsided
Legend has it that, in 1370, a sailing ship caught in a violent storm lost its heavy cargo, including a heavy case containing a wooden statue of the Blessed Mother and Child. As soon as the case touched the water, the story goes, the sea was calmed and the storm subsided.
The weighty case washed ashore at a particular point on the beach at Cagliari. Today this spot is marked by a marble column indicates the precise spot of the landing.
Upon opening the case, the friars discovered the statue, deemed it worthy of veneration, and placed it in a prominent place in the church for special honor and devotion.
The wooden statue is that of a crowned Mary holding a crowned Infant Jesus in her left arm, and grasping a candle in her right hand. The statue is carved out of a single piece of locust-tree wood, and is now displayed in the apse of the high altar of the church.
The Bonaria statue bears a remarkable resemblance to the statue of Our Lady of Cardigan in Wales. A 12th-century Welsh legend proposes that this statue was found by the side of a river in southern Wales. Despite its being taken to the local parish church three times, it did not remain there. Each time, it mysteriously found its way to the location that eventually became the site of St. Mary's Shrine to Our Lady of Cardigan, built in 1158.
While the Welsh maintain that the Bonaria statue thus has its origin in their land, the natives of Cagliari, not surprisingly, mention little or nothing of the Welsh tradition. In any case, in Cagliari, after the landing of the statue, devotion to Our Lady of Bonaria grew rapidly, particularly among seafaring men who looked to Mary as their protectress.
The oldest section of the edifice is the sanctuary itself, which was built by the Aragonese between 1324 and 1326 in classic Gothic-Catalan style.
The apse of the church is located in the bell tower, a remnant of the original building. In the center of the apse is the statue of Our Lady of Bonaria, located in a niche on the wall behind and high above the altar. From a high point of the ceiling in the apse hangs a small, carved ivory boat dating back to the 15th century. It is said to signal the winds of the gulf over which the Church looks.
On the vaulted ceiling are frescoes of sailors at sea, and of angels watching and guarding over them. The frescoes are by an artist named Gina Baldracchini. A small statue, known as Our Lady of the Miracle , dates back to the church's original construction in 1325. It rests in a niche on a side altar to the right of Our Lady of Bonaria. To the left of the Bonaria statue is another small altar in honor of Our Lady of the Goldfinch.
The basilica, which is adjacent, yet separate from the sanctuary, was begun in 1704. Its construction was interrupted, resumed in 1910, and finally concluded in 1926. Its frescoes, as well as other precious artwork, were destroyed during World War II air-raids. Reconstruction of the edifice began in 1947 and ended in 1988.
A carved marble canopy atop green marble columns is suspended over the basilica altar. It is embellished with angels and arches of golden copper. Paintings of Our Lady of Fatima, the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception, are by a Sardinian painter named Antonio Mura. Another painting of the Madonna of Mercy is by Gina Baldracchini.
Majestic bronze doors, the work of Ernesto Lamagna, adorn the main entrance to the basilica. Those who pass through the doors are treated to a spectacular view of the large square, which stretches out toward the sea. The neighboring Parco di Bonaria contains Roman and Phoenician tombs and is located on the hillside next to the basilica.
The square directly in front of the basilica leads to a long beach and a rocky promontory called the “Devil's Saddle.” Legend has it that, at one point, the rocky hill reared itself and threw the devil off. A band of angels arrived just in the nick of time, to assist him in his departure. Hence the gulf is named Golfo degli Angeli , the Gulf of the Angels.
On Sept. 13, 1907, Pope Pius X proclaimed the Madonna of Bonaria the “Highest Patron of Sardinia.” Two popes, John Paul II and Paul VI, have honored Our Lady by making pilgrimages to Bonaria.
The feast of Our Lady of Bonaria is July 1, and is celebrated with many colorful festivities as well as a prayerful and solemn three-day triduum.
Sardinia is certainly more than a hop, skip and jump from mainland Italy—a destination for those who like a little adventure with their pilgrimage.
Elena Dwyer is based in
Annandale, New Jersey.
- September 16-22, 2001