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From Nazareth to Belém, via Portugal, faith in Our Lady unites centuries around one name: Mary

Marian devotion: the origins

Daniel Nardin, Anna Carla Ribeiro e Sérgio Chêne - Translated by Silvia Benchimol and Ewerton Branco

The devotion to Our Lady of Nazareth has found its greatest expression in the Amazon, embodied in the celebration of Círio de Nazaré, one of the greatest popular Catholic events in the world, which brings together nearly two million people through the streets of Belém, capital of Pará, on the second Sunday of October. Due to the pandemic, processions and tributes to the “Queen of the Amazon” will remain restricted in 2021. This fact, however, does not hold back the fervor of the Catholic devotees. Many do not keep themselves from going out on the streets to express their faith in their peculiar ways. Despite the prohibition of official pilgrimages since 2020, when the population faced one of the worst scenarios of covid-19 in Brazil, worshippers continued to renew their belief in Mary, mother of Jesus. Marian religious manifestations in Pará – those which place Mary, mother of Jesus, at the very center of devotion – remain vivid for almost three centuries.

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Popular in the heart of the Amazon, with its own peculiarities, the tradition surrounding the miracles attributed to Our Lady has strong ties with the Portuguese culture and the colonization process in the region. Deepening into history and following in the footsteps of devotion, it is possible to get back and revisit the original city of Nazareth in Lower Galilee where Mary and Joseph lived with Jesus for part of his childhood and youth. Tradition holds that Nazareth was the place where the long history of faith began to be reaffirmed every year thereafter in the payer of each devotee, in the tears of each faithful believer of Mother Mary.

Nazareth, Galilee: The Town of the Holy Family

The name Nazareth dates back to the city of Galilee region, in Israel.  With over 4,000 years of history, Galilee was the place where Jesus’ parents lived more than 2,000 years ago. The name Nazareth brings about a strong symbolic connotation for Christians. In Hebrew, Natzeret comes from the word Netzer: which means sprout or shoot.

Israel (Reproduction / Israel Ministry)

Prophet Isaiah (11:1) wrote: "A shoot shall grow out of the stump of Jesse. A twig shall sprout from his stock." According to the Christian belief, the Scriptures allude to Jesus in whose genealogical tree is King David, son of Jesse. Due to his origins tracing from the “House of David”, Joseph had to go to Bethlehem, near Jerusalem, for the census of the Roman Empire. There, Jesus was born. 

Place where Mary lived (Daniel Nardin / O Liberal)

Herod, King of Judaea at the time, ordered the killing of all children under the age of two, fearing the announced birth of a new king. Joseph and Mary, now with baby Jesus, decide to flee to Egypt. They return years later directly to Nazareth. That which was a small village in Jesus' time has become the largest city in the Northern District of Israel, with a population of 80 thousand inhabitants. Today the city of Galilee stands out in religious and historical tourism – a great economic source. Nazareth is known as one of the departure points for other nearby biblical cities.

Nazareth, Galilee: the image carved by Joseph himself

A wooden image is supposed to have traveled through several continents to finally reach its present home in Portugal, where the tradition of devotion to Mary evolved ever since

The Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth attracts attention. The building we visit today dates from 1969, but the original church was erected and destroyed several times. The first records of the Church as a sanctuary provided by Emperor Constantine dated from the fourth century. The Emperor was known for having converted and propagated Christianity throughout the Roman Empire.

Basilica of the Annunciation (Daniel Nardin / O Liberal)

The ruins of a nearly two-thousand-years old humble home constitute the main visitation point of the Church. Supposedly, It was in this place that Archangel Gabriel visited Mary to make the “Annunciation” that she would conceive a child – Jesus. The house, therefore, would be the place where Mary grew up and lived. The Church has two large floors. The outdoor garden displays a beautiful image of the Virgin Mary, who seems to extend her hands to greet – and bless – the pilgrims. The complex also has an archaeological center. Nearby, it is possible to access the plain church of Saint Joseph erected in the place where his carpentry shop would have operated.

The image (Daniel Nardin / O Liberal)

This is likely to have been the place of the first representation of Mary carved in wood. The oral tradition holds – based on a single record, without proof, made by Frei Bernardo de Brito, in the Book of the Portuguese Monarchy – that Joseph would have portrayed an image of the Virgin breastfeeding her son, Jesus.

According to studies and historical documents, the small wooden image remained in Galilee until the beginning the persecution against Christian symbols in the region. It was, then, kept and taken to Europe by notable Catholic figures, such as St. Jerome and St. Augustine, heading to Spain and Portugal.

Wood image (Anna Carla Ribeiro / Especial para O Liberal)

Professor Ida Hamoy, from the Museology course at the Faculdade de Artes Visuais [Faculty of Visual Arts] of the Federal University of Pará (UFPA), and also a member of the Graduate Program in Ciências do Patrimônio Cultural [Cultural Heritage Sciences], points out that it is unlikely that the image was produced by Joseph himself, as its artistic characteristics date back to the 11th and 12th century.

However, the researcher emphasizes that the strong oral tradition cannot be completely underestimated. "In fact, if we rationally think that Mary's husband Joseph was a Jew who fulfilled Jewish obligations, he would hardly have carved an image of Mary as a saint, considering the prohibitions on carving images prescribed in the Torah (the holy Scripture for the Hebrews)", highlighted Ida in her thesis, defended at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). "However, there is no discredit in his sculpting an image of his wife, while handling wood, in his daily chores as a carpenter, as a sign of affective memory and it becoming an image of reference to the subsequent cult".

Researcher Ida Hamoy (Tarso Sarraf / O Liberal)

Mary’s image, initially hidden and later found in Portugal, inaugurated a new phase of devotion to Our Lady of Nazareth – which is still vigorous in Nazareth, Israel, and has spread throughout the world, being more expressive in Portugal and Brazil, especially Belém, with Círio of Nazaré.

Nazaré, Portugal: relics, miracles and the early stages of the procession

Nazaré, a small village in Portugal, was not named like that for no reason. Although it is most known nowadays for the gigantic waves, which can reach up to 30 meters high, a figure of Our Lady of Nazareth was hidden there for 468 years. According to the story local people tell, monk Frei Romano took it to the Portuguese land, from the Spanish city Mérida, in the year 714. He was escaping from the battles between Christians and Muslims. He was accompanied by Dom Rodrigo, the last king from that region, after the Christian army was defeated during the Battle of Guadalete. 

Sanctuary of Our Lady of Nazareth (Anna Carla Ribeiro / Especial para O Liberal)

According to the tradition in the village, the religious image was first kept in a cave, next to a cliff, by the beach where Frei Romano lived as a hermit and was buried. The image was found by some shepherd men close to the place where the shrine was built in Nazaré, in 1179. 

The mystery concerning the Mary’s wooden image goes beyond. The second place for maintaining Our Lady, still next to the cliff, replacing the grotto where it was hidden for many years, was built after a miracle known as “The legend of Nazareth.” On the 14th of September 1182, Dom Fuas Roupinho, Porto de Mós castle mayor, was hunting during a heavy fog. He was chasing a deer, riding a horse, when he realized he was at the border of a cliff: the very same spot of the cave where the Virgin Mary image was. So, Dom Fuas begged out loud, “For Holy Mother’s sake!” The horse suddenly stopped, digging his hoofs in the rock. That’s how he escaped from dying that day. It is still possible to visit that cliff border nowadays. Some people state that if one stares at the rock carefully, they can even see some marks of the horse hoofs. 

Gratefully, Dom Fuas ordered the construction of the Capela da Memória [Chapel of Memory], where the saint’s image started to be worshiped by the Portuguese people, from 1182 to 1377. Iconic characters are among those who worshiped the figure, such as the famous explorer Vasco da Gama – before going on his journey to India, he went to the temple to pray and ask for protection.

Dom Fuas Roupinho Memorial (Anna Carla Ribeiro / Especial para O Liberal)

Currently, the wooden image is displayed for visitors at the Santuário de Nossa Senhora da Nazaré [Sanctuary of Our Lady of Nazareth] (differently from Brazil, in Portugal the preposition “da” is used to refer to the Virgin Mary), which was founded in 1377. Now, the sculpture kept in Nazaré village presents a cloak. The item was added after the Council of Trent in the 15th century, in order to standardize the Holy Mary Catholic iconography.  

Faith in Mary against rough seas 

Isabel Matias was born in Nazaré and has sold nuts around the shrine for six years. She witnesses closely the pilgrims’ journey. “Many people come to Sítio de Nazaré [City of Nazaré] during the period of celebrations, because a of  lot of people have nurtured their faith in Our Lady for a long time,” she explains. “Our Lady of Nazareth is claimed to be responsible for miracles when men went to war battle fields or to the sea journeys. Women got together to pray to her, so she could bring back their spouses, then the miracles would happen. In the old days, it was very hard to sail here. Many people did not return. I have strong faith in her too. I often have been blessed as well.”

Isabel Matias was born in Nazareth (Anna Carla Ribeiro / Especial para O Liberal)

A brief visit to the interior part of the Sanctuary, located in front of the Chapel of Memory, is enough to identify similarities between the Círio de Nazaré, which happens in Belém, capital of Pará state in Brazil, and the processions in Nazaré,  Portugal, that occur every September the 8th. The wax objects, commonly seen in the Brazilian version of Cirio de Nazare, are Portuguese heritage. Many of them are displayed in the temple, such as representations of human body parts, houses and boats.  

Besides that, on the same shelf where some of those artifacts lie, there is a small plate with a picture of Círio the Nazaré drawn in marajoara style [Brazilian indigenous people] – proof that everything related to Our Lady of Nazareth is connected. Faith overpasses barriers and ignores geographic limits.

Belém, Pará: the popularization of the faith in Our Lady of Nazareth

Devotees in Belém (Fábio Costa / Arquivo O Liberal)

Paulo Eduardo de Nazaré, 41 years old, is an interior designer who lives in Nazaré neighborhood, close to the Sanctuary square, in Belém. He is a member of the Cristo Alegria [Joyful Christ] religious community and experiences a different routine every time Círio de Nazaré festivity begins. For 229 years, celebrations, pilgrimages and processions have occurred in the capital every year.   

“We have a strong tradition at home. It comes from my parents, embraces family and neighbors all together. The first preparations are always in advance and go along with the parish, the pilgrimages and everything related to Círio. We start listening to Catholic songs since September”, says Paulo. 

The designer is only one among millions of devotees to Our Lady of Nazareth around the world – In Belém, that relationship is expressed by unrestricted affection to the image of the saint, which covers 300 years of history. In 1700, Plácido José de Souza, a cabloco [Brazilian ethnicity], found a statue of Our Lady of Nazareth at the borders of Murucutu river. By that time, the devotion to the Virgin of Nazareth was already common in Brazil, especially among Portuguese settlers.  

Faith in Mary (Akira Onuma / O Liberal)

According to the researcher Ida Hamoy, the oldest image of Our Lady of Nazareth was registered by Frei Agostinho de Santa Maria (1642-1728), in Bahia state. Supposedly, it had been brought to Brazil by Tomé de Souza (1503-1579), the general governor of the country. So, worshiping Our Lady of Nazareth was already a tradition since the early centuries of Brazil’s establishment. Though it was due to Plácido's discovery in the Amazon that it was spread. 

According to the story that is spread orally, Plácido took the image home but, repeatedly, it would disappear and be found again and again at the same spot where it was found for the first time. Next to that place, a small church was built. It is where the Our Lady of Nazareth Cathedral is located nowadays. 

Círio 2019 (Cristino Martins / O Liberal)

As the popular devotion increased and so did the reports of miracles claimed to Our Lady of Nazareth, the first Círio de Nazaré was celebrated in 1793 – since then, it has just expanded in numbers, stories and symbols, such as the berlinda, the rope, the miracles floating boat, among others. 

A tradition that changes every year, cheering up the devotee’s hearts, not only in the Amazon region, but also in many other cities around the world, wherever there are people and families originally from Pará state. They keep the bonds to the region and their faith demonstrations. 

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