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  • Writer's pictureIsabella Guerrini de Claire

Umbria, the Land of Miraculous Water.

A region far from the sea, yet a kingdom of water that runs through the valley and bursts into fountains in towns and cities, showcasing the art of historic centers surrounded by civic and religious buildings.

Water in Umbria is everywhere, even where it is not so evident. It becomes mystical and miraculous, mythical and profane, evoking ancient rituals that sanctify nature itself.

The numerous springs of mineral waters, already appreciated by the Romans, are a source of pride for this land where respect for nature and careful environmental protection are integral values of Umbrian culture. The Umbrian underground is particularly rich in mineral waters, whose beneficial and healing properties have been renowned for millennia and are used for hydrotherapy treatments in thermal centers and for bottling.

In this rugged and rocky landscape of Valnerina, where the river penetrates through the rocks, creating deep gorges and clefts, are the most well-known and frequented places of worship in Italy. But the entire Umbria area between Spoleto, Foligno, and Norcia is scattered with churches and abbeys that originated in natural sites, which were already true "natural therapeutic sanctuaries" in pagan times. Even today, the element of "Water" is the object of popular devotion.

Miraculous underground waters

Near S. Anatolia di Narco, close to Spoleto, you will find the small Romanesque abbey of San Felice, built on the hermitage where the saints Mauro and Felice were buried. According to legend, they saved the inhabitants of the area from the poisonous breath of a dragon. The episode, engraved in the frieze under the rose window of the facade, most likely refers to the reclamation work of the marshes carried out by the monks. But what made this place a pilgrimage destination for centuries is the water from the spring that flows beneath the abbey, believed to cure skin diseases. In the presbytery, in front of the high altar, there was a hole, protected by an iron grate, where mothers washed children affected by scabies or other skin diseases.

The desire to become a mother

There are numerous underground waters and springs in Umbria to which popular tradition has attributed purification and healing properties. The place where water emerges from the ground or gushes from the rock has become a sacred place, a privileged contact between divinity and man, who builds a "sanctuary" there. For example, Santa Maria di Pietrarossa, along the Flaminia road between Trevi and Foligno, is a 13th-century church built on the ruins of a Roman city, with its interior adorned with frescoes.

The name derives from the red stone embedded in a pillar of the church, with a hole from which a miraculous water used to flow, believed to cure infertility. Following a tradition that blends Christian and magical elements, on the night of St. John, women from nearby villages came to the sanctuary. They inserted their finger into the hole of the red stone, made three turns around the altar, touched the fresco depicting St. John, and then went to drink the miraculous water from a well a few meters from the church.

Infant clothes as votive offerings

Mothers who were unable to breastfeed would go to the abbey of San Silvestro, climbing from Collepino towards Mount Subasio, and ask the Saint for the grace to drink from the fountain. The water was very effective, if we are to believe the number of baby bonnets and shirts tied to the church gate by grateful mothers who were able to breastfeed after drinking it. In some sanctuaries, such as the Madonna della Peschiera in Borgo Preci, gratitude for the healing obtained has manifested over the centuries through ex-votos, ceramic panels painted with the scene of the miracle, offering a historical fresco of the daily life of ordinary people.

Water against malaria

There are numerous sanctuaries dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel, often erected on the outskirts of pastures, near springs of limestone and therapeutic waters used by shepherds in the months of transhumance against malaria fevers.

One of these is the Sanctuary of S. Angelo de gructis in Roviglieto di Foligno, on the slopes of Mount Cologna, also known as Madonna del Riparo. Built in the 11th century in a large and deep natural cave accessed through stairs carved into the rock, it was rediscovered in the 19th century after centuries of abandonment. On the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel, the sick would come to drink and bathe in the water from the well located at the entrance of the cave.

The Virgin of miracles

Many places of worship were built where there was already a hermitage, a chapel with relics of a saint, or a niche with an image of the Virgin, which, following a miraculous event, became the object of particular popular devotion.

This is what happened with the sanctuary of Madonna delle Grazie, built in the 15th century near Rasiglia, between Spoleto and Foligno, on the bed of a stream. It was precisely on this stream, near a spring of water already believed to be therapeutic, that a terracotta statue of the Virgin with Child was found. Contested by the inhabitants of Verchiano, who wanted it in their church, the statue, according to legend, miraculously returned overnight to where it had been found. Even the oxen refused to pull the cart on which it was attempted to be transported.

A sanctuary was then built on the site of the discovery, which is still an important place of worship for the inhabitants of the Menotre Valley and Foligno.

Curing bones on the rocks

The ascent to the hermitage of Santa Maria Jacobis in Sasso di Pale (Foligno) is long and arduous, a true path of purification that pilgrims walked barefoot to atone for their sins and heal in body and spirit. Along the path, there are fissures in the rocks that, according to legend, are the footprints and handprints of the holy hermit who went to the mountain to pray and do penance. In these deep incisions, patients with rheumatism and bone diseases would place their limbs to obtain healing or at least relief from their pain.

A particular case, near Foligno, is the sanctuary of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, linked to the history of the Cancelli family, whose eldest sons have the gift of healing sciatica directly from the apostles through the laying on of hands. This gift was recognized by the Church, which, to accommodate the enormous number of patients seeking healing, authorized the construction of the grand sanctuary dedicated to the Apostles in the 18th century.

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