On the Monday after Easter the Sessani celebrate their two protectors, St. Leo and the Madonna del Popolo, with a grand procession through the streets of the historic center.
St. Leo and the Madonna del Popolo in procession
According to local legend, Pope Leo IX fled to Sessa Aurunca after the defeat of his army at Civitate in June 1053. He first concealed himself in a farmer’s cottage near the eastern walls of the city, but his identity was soon discovered. Emerging from his hiding place, he was transferred with great ceremony to a monastery located in the area of the ducal palace. A nineteenth-century church now stands on the supposed site of the first part of his sojourn.
More reliable accounts maintain that Leo was taken prisoner by the Normans after the battle, and that he was held at Benevento for nine months, making his stay in Sessa impossible, unless he fled there before being captured. Sessa Aurunca is perhaps half the way to Rome from Civitate, and it seems unlikely that a successful flight that far would go unmentioned even in the briefest accounts of the battle and its aftermath. (I suppose it’s helpful to remember that in hagiography, truth is often metaphorical rather than literal.)
St. Leo before the church of the Annunziata
The silver and bronze statue of the saint now carried in procession dates to 1982, when it was commissioned to replace an earlier effigy that had disappeared under very mysterious circumstances. The earlier statue had in turn replaced another, in silver, broken into pieces and divided among French soldiers looting the city in 1799.
The saint in profile
The Madonna del Popolo, Sessa’s most venerated image, dates to the sixteenth century. The panel was transferred to the high altar of the cathedral from the church of Sta. Anna in the early seventeenth century when it began effecting miracles. The gilded frame and crowns that adorn it were added in the nineteenth century, the crowns in particular replacing earlier ones also stolen by the French.
Madonna del Popolo
Giovanni Maria Diamare, the sixty-first bishop of Sessa and chronicler of the city’s history, invented a longer history for the painting (or perhaps he simply repeated the inventions of another.) Diamare claimed that the panel was of ancient origin and that it had been hidden in Sta. Anna to protect it from barbarian assault or iconoclasm. Fortunately for the Madonna del Popolo, it was never in any danger from either of the two, as its creation postdates both of them by several centuries.