The merry old woman with the shotgun in the hand was not painted on the wall of this house as a mere gag. She is not a Wild West-type matron either, who with a single Winchester holds off the bandits attacking the farm, although in Sardinia, where the reality and romance of banditry has been alive until recently, there must have been many examples of this. As the caption says, she is tzia Maria Palimodde, born in 1921, who “celebrated the rite of s’incontru as it is required by tradition.”
The rite of s’incontru, “the encounter” is a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages all over Sardinia, but especially in the mountainous Barbagia, and most specifically in Oliena, where tzia Maria stands on the balcony of her house. The encounter takes place between Christ and the Virgin Mary. On Easter Sunday morning the statue of the risen Christ, carried by a procession of men dressed in Sardinian costumes, sets out from the church of the Holy Cross, while at the same time the statue of the Virgin Mary, whose dress has been changed overnight from mournful black to blue, also sets out from the church of St. Francis, carried by a procession of women. The two processions meet in the main square, where Christ bows three times before his mother. The crowd bursts out in cheering, vivu est Deus, “God is alive again!”, and heavy gunfire begins from the rooftops, balconies and windows, partly to express their joy, and partly to keep away evil.
Tzia Maria lived next to the church of Santa Croce, built in 1588 during Spanish rule, which is the starting point of the procession of the Risen Christ. It was an important privilege and dignity of her father to shoot his shotgun during the s’incontru from the balcony, which is next to the church and clearly visible from the entire square. When he died, the orphaned Maria inherited her father’s rifle and this duty. Her figure with the gun on the balcony was a constant feature of the ceremony for many years, and it has remained so even after her death, because the city could not do without her, and commissioned the mural painter Luigi Columbu to immortalize her in her usual place, on the wall of her house.
Popularity has its curse as well. “We are very honored that they painted our grandmother here, and everyone can see her, take a photo of her, and it is also published in newspapers”, says her granddaughter, with whom we talk in front of the church of Santa Croce. “But there are some images that we do not consider respectful enough. For example, they staund up a copy of this image in the fair, where the face is cut out, everyone can put their head in the opening, and have a picture taken in her clothes.”
Yet the identification with tzia Maria and her unique role in the still heavily patriarchal Sardinian society can be very appealing to many. Proof of this is that this year at the s’incontru, where Christ himself bows before His mother and the Sardinian women carrying her, for the first time women made up the first line of the gunners greeting them in the main square. As we hope we will also see on the nextcoming Easter Sunday.
The church of Santa Croce, as tzia Maria could see it from her balcony in her childhood. Photo by Piero Pirari, Sardegna Digital Library