What's a Crocodile doing hanging from the church rafters?

I love visiting the churches in Italy for their simplicity or grandeur of the architecture, colors, carved wood and marble, the artwork inside dissolving into the shadows or illuminated by the casting rays of light through the stained glass, the sometimes old odd smell and the devotion felt by their congregation listening to the singing and sermons echoing throughout. But, what does this have to do with a Crocodile? 

While visiting the International Street Painting Festival in Grazie di Curtatone in Northern Italy for my third time, as a tourist this time, with another Chalk Festival volunteer Suzanne Pardo, I was able to spend more time at the Santuario della Beata Vergine Maria delle Grazie; that stands as the festival's conscience and as a visually beautiful backdrop to the pavement festival, overlooking the most beautiful valley of the Mincio, the river that flows through the region. 

Inside the church, dangling above your head from the rafters, there is a chained crocodile! I have heard several theories over the years about this crocodile. One theory goes that the crocodile escaped from a zoo belonging to the Gonzagas, (the first Duke of Mantua) and was captured behind the Santuario by a fisherman who wrestled it, killed it and had it stuffed. The fisherman then convinced the priests to hang it in the Church.

The historical context is the crocodile was added in the 15th or 16th century as a votive offering, as a symbolic representation of the Apocalypse, a symbolic appearance of a dragon (serpent or crocodile which represents satan, the devil) falling from the sky. The crocodile acts as a warning (reminder) against the human inclination to sin, and the chaining of the crocodile was the equivalent of controlling the forces of evil. 

A crocodile hanging in another church, the Santuario Madonna delle Licrime Immocolate is the oldest known taxidermy. There are also crocodiles hanging in the Ponte Nossa and another in Brno's Town Hall. While there may have been other taxidermy animals during this time, it was not perfected and so it is thought that the leathery hides of the crocodiles made it possible for the crocs to survive all these years. 

It is definitely the kind of curiosity that you should experience.

But that’s not all! It’s not just about the crocodile at this amazing church

There are other amazing things to see in the church. Owing God for miracles received, the nave is lined with life-size mannequins “representing episodes of danger averted by divine intercession.” The entire church is taken with ex-votos: hearts, hands, eyes, breasts, and pestilential buboes recalled from the age of the plague. Francesco Gonzaga built the first temple here dedicated to the Virgin Mary after the end to an epidemic of The Plague and it was completed in August of 1406.

grazie hanged men picture

Today the Sanctuary brings tens of thousands of tourists and it’s one of the most interesting churches you’ll see. 

grazie church and tourists picture

But even that is not all!

The history and life of the Sanctuary is the Solemnity of the Assumption on August 15th. From the early morning the streets of the village full with pilgrims, and later visitors for a traditional festival of trade wares that has been going on for over 500 years. It has reached international fame due to the pavement festival that is coming close to celebrating 50 years of existence. 

Today they have 150 spaces for artists that covers the area in front of the church where pavement artists arrive with their chalks or can purchase chalk onsite (each stick costs around $1-20, and many, many sticks of chalk are used in these 8'x10' pavement paintings). The 24-hour Madonnari competition takes place each year during the Feast of the Assumption, August 15th. Traditionally the pavement has been very difficult, but last year they got new asphalt and while it is still a difficult surface, it is better than I saw during the times I attended as a judge of the competition. This event has a long rich history that will have to be saved for another blog posting, another day.

Grazie is not only a 'thank you' for gratitude or consideration, but the name of a small a town just a few kilometers from Mantua in Lombardy. Grazie is a small suburb administrated by the larger place, Curtatone, hence its name Grazie di Curtatone. One must also visit the city of Mantua that is surrounded by 3 (artificial) lakes. It's known for the architectural legacy of the Renaissance Gonzaga rulers, who built the Ducal Palace. This imposing building houses the Bridal Chamber, decorated with Andrea Mantegna frescoes. The Gonzagas also built the Te Palace, known for the Chamber of the Giants, where every surface is painted with mythological scenes.

Contact us if you are interested in joining us next year for a trip to see this historically important festival and northern Italy,

crocodile church picture