Bones, Oil, and Saints: How Holiness worked in pre-modern Europe

Lessons from 17th Century Naples

Mary Andino
Nov 22, 2020 · 8 min read

Introduction

In 1640, a teenage girl, Angelella Cozzolino returned home from a visit with her father, Nicola, to a local shrine with a miraculous oil, that when placed in front of images of the Virgin Mary, refilled itself and healed ill individuals through its application.[1]

Word of this spectacular substance rapidly spread throughout the town. Members of both the laity and clergy came to seek the aid of this therapeutic oil. Later, Angelella began to have visions and mystical experiences of a certain “saint” Ampollone (who was not actually a saint), who told her where she could find his bones and the bones of several other saints.

She instructed people to dig nearby the house, and soon they found many bones, another miraculous event. Thus, an ordinary family of laborers became the center of a devotional sensation.

Angelella was just one member of the Cozzolino family, a family that was involved in a complicated, wide-ranging case of false sanctity, or pretense of holiness, tried by the Neapolitan Inquisition in 1641. This case involved many relatives of the Cozzolino family and most of the local clergy and population in Resina, a town south of Naples.

How did a poor family, with very little social standing, come to dominate the religious life of their town? What role did gender play in this process? This case is a valuable window into the on the ground experiences of ordinary Catholics in pre-modern Italy.

Modern day Naples, the closest city and site of Catholic power to Resina

The Cozzolino family’s story began when Angelella and her father, Nicola, traveled on a pilgrimage from their town of Resina to a Marian shrine at Monte Vergine. There, a monk gave them a container with oil from the lamp on the altar.

The pair returned home and placed the container in their home in front of four images of the Virgin of Santa Maria a Pugliano. If they removed oil from its container, it would miraculously be full again by the next morning. The oil healed people of leg pain, kidney problems, and blindness, among other maladies.

These miracles quickly attracted attention from neighbors; when the parish priest, Francesco Antonio Scognamiglio, got word of the portentous substance, he took the oil and almost of all of the paintings and locked them away in the parish church.

Soon, the oil began emanating from the painting that remained in the house. The priest returned the items to the Cozzolino home, but then made everyone leave and locked up the house. Later, Angelella, the daughter, began feeling physically ill and had several out of body experiences, in which she engaged in visionary conversations with a certain St. Ampollone. Ampollone told her where he and several of his saintly compatriots were buried.

Eventually, residents of Resina found some bones, which Angelella identified as belonging to various non-canonized saints. Shortly afterward, this parish priest, Francesco Scognamiglio, traveled to the Inquisition tribunal in Naples to denounce the Cozzolino family and the trial began.[2]

Female Word of Mouth

The question of how exactly news of the miracles at the Cozzolino home spread is one that looms over the trial.

Often, witnesses do not explain who told them about the oil or Angelella, usually only vaguely referring to a rumor they heard. Yet, at the margins of witness testimony, we see that women in the community primarily disseminated the information.

When someone specific is mentioned as talking publicly about the home and the events within it, it is almost always a woman. Once, when Angelella came out of a vision, she found herself surrounded by women, including such relatives as Aunt Laura, Maria Cozzolino, and Martia de Madonna.[3]

The female side of the Cozzolino family was frequently in the home and involved in looking after Angelella, giving them privileged access to knowledge of what happened within the house. Many witnesses remark on Angelella’s mother, Apollonia, and her role in discussing these events.

Angelella recounts that her mother was frequently outside the house, talking with other women. Apollonia even admits that for about a month and a half she stood outside for four hours a day, talking with women.[4]

Another female Cozzolino relative commented more generally on the marked presence of women in the home. When Angelella was inside, female relatives and female neighbors, in particular, would either enter and visit with Angelella, or stand outside and talk.[5] In this case, women served as diffusers of local knowledge in impactful ways.

Female word of mouth was highly important in non-urban areas such as Resina. These women’s willingness to discuss and promote the holy individual’s behaviors seems to have been widespread and likely a critical factor in the growth of the Cozzolino shrine.

Space

The Cozzolino case is a productive opportunity to examine the interplay between holiness and space.

Over the course of the trial, the domestic space, the small one-room house of the Cozzolino family, became the spiritual center of the community in Resina, displacing the parish church. This ordinary living space became sacralized through several processes. Angelella and Nicola brought the oil from the shrine at Monte Vergine into their home, where it began to exhibit miraculous properties.

The healing qualities of the oil soon turned the home into a religious shrine in its own right. Almost every witness remarks, unprompted by the Inquisitors, how the house was overflowing with people. Witnesses consistently describe the home as hosting a “crowd,” or being “almost totally full.”[6] Even at night, the house was always open to visitors.

Eventually, news of the miraculous oil spread so widely that a possessed woman from Torre dello Greco, the next town over, came to seek a bit of the healing oil for herself. Although the domestic space in early modern Europe is often conceptualized as “private,” one witness testimony demonstrates the highly public nature of the home.

Sabbetella Guadino, a member of the Cozzoino clan, recounts that after the priest took the oil container and most of the images into the parish church, she stayed inside, looking at the remaining image. She recounts, “I saw that two streams of oil were coming from the head below the crown of that image and I went outside and called Angelella and her father and said, ‘The Madonna has granted you the grace that the oil flows from the crown of the Madonna,’ and so Angelella and her father entered inside and they kneeled and it moved them to tears and all three yelled loudly and at that sound the mother…and other people filled the house.” [7]

The border between private and public space seems to be rather non-existent in this case; the home appears to have always been open to those seeking to witness the portentous events for themselves. The Cozzolino home served as a space for community members and neighbors to gather, witness, and discuss miracles.

Angelella’s behavior also increasingly sacralized the home and made it a religious center for the town. Angelella had several series of visions of Ampollone. These mystical episodes almost always happened within the family home, rather than the parish church or other sacred spaces.

Even when she went to the parish church to go to mass or confess, these ecstatic experiences did not occur. Angelella’s mystical experiences further attracted visitors to the house. Angelella recounts that after one vision, “I returned to myself and found many people around me…Aunt Laura, Maria Cozzolino, Maria de Madonna, and others were present.”[8]

Additionally, the information contained in these visions made the house a site of relics and a source of holy power. After the young girl had visions of Ampollone, she told people where to dig in order to find his and other saints’ bones. After two days of digging, a group of men found the bones near the house.[9] Thus, not only did the mystical identifier of the relics live in the house, but the house itself produced the relics.

The profound sacrality that this home came to possess, through images, relics, and visionaries, suggests the high level of integration between domestic and religious space in the pre-modern Italian South. In this trial, the Cozzolino home combined physical proximity, with many of the family members under one roof and the home located near the parish church, with a gathering space to observe the spiritual gifts of a living visionary, the miraculous refilling and healing of holy oil, and the discovery of relics of saints’ bones.

This space provided consistent, intimate, and unimpeded access to the sacred and became a major spiritual center in Resina.

Conclusion

In the town of Resina, people saw holiness as so pervasive it made sense to them that all of these elements, visions, bones, relics, oil, paintings, and miracles, would be combined together.

Here, holiness was easily and quickly transferable. The miraculous oil traveled from Monte Vergine to the Cozzolino home, where its sacrality further manifested itself in the paintings, Angelella, Ampollone, and the bones. The witnesses, in this case, do not explicitly refer to the methods of transmission for this sacral power but is evident that the quality of an object or a person could easily shift from ordinary and quotidian to powerful and miraculous.

This trial reads as a dizzying array of shrines, images, miracles, and saints that reveals just how ever-present and accessible fonts of holiness were in ordinary Catholic’s minds. This trial helps us understand the worldview of a type of person; although it is much different from ours, it is still important to comprehend.

In Italy in the 1600s, people could find holiness and the power of God in any place, at any time, and through any person. Over time, a teenage girl, some oil, and a painting made an ordinary home into a major shrine and religious center for an entire town; for its population, holiness was pervasive, powerful, and transferable.

References

[1] ASDN (Archivio Storico Diocesano di Napoli), 199.2792,4v-5r.

[2]ASDN 199.2792.

[3] Ibid., 15v.

[4] Ibid., 13r, 32v. Angelella Cozzolino testifies, “Mia madre era fora et parlava con altra femine,” 13v.

[5] Ibid., 21v. Apollonia Cozzolino testifies, “Havera’ circa uno mese et mezzo che era circa quattro hora di giorno, stando io per la cortina filando con altre femine.”

[6] ASDN 199.2792, 25r. Biase Scogniamiglio testifies, “Ce andai et ritrovai quasi piena detta casa di gente.”

[7] Ibid., 21v-22r. Sabbatella Guadino testifies, “Me andarno l’occhi alla Madonna Santissima et viddi che uscivano due campenelle d’oglio dalla testa seu corona di detta imagine, et io uscii for a et chiamai detta Agnelella et lo padre et dissi: ‘La Madonna te have fatto la gratia per che esce l’oglio dealla corona della Madonna’ et cosi intorno dentro detta Angelella et lo padre et si ingenocchiorno et si misero a piangere et gridavamo forte tutti tre et a questo rumore ce venne la madre et…altre genti che si impi’ la casa,” 22r.

[8] Angelella Cozzolino testifies, “Poi venne in me et trovai molti gente attorno a me et fra l’altre il parocchiano al quale raccontai ogni cose, e le scrisse, et ce era presente zia Laura, Maria Cozzolino, et Maria de Madonna et altre.” Ibid., 15v.

Sabbattella Gaudino testifies, “Pensavamo che moresse et stette cosi de tre quarti d’hora et poi rivenne in se’ et non disse niente, et a questo ce concorsero li parenti et le vicine,” Ibid., 22v.

[9] Ibid., 16r, 24r.

[10] Ibid., 35r.

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Mary Andino

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Historian, writer, and enthusiastic home-cook

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.