In fact the Christian community on Lipari was one of the first in the West to practice the cult of the martyrs. The story of the passion of the Apostle Bartholomew tells how he was an itinerant preacher in Asia, where he converted many to the Christian faith and so was killed by pagans in Armenia.
It was a terrible death: first he was flayed alive and then decapitated. After his burial, the local population attributed many miracles to him, resulting in even more demonstrations of devotion. This annoyed the infidels, who decided to place the remains of the saint in a marble chest and cast it into the sea, so that the Christians could no longer honour him.
Then a miracle happened: instead of lying on the seabed, the heavy chest floated on the surface of the sea and was carried by the current to the small island of Lipari. Here he was welcomed by Agathon, the island’s first bishop, who had been warned by an angel in a vision of the saint’s miraculous arrival.
The population of Lipari, feeling it to be a great honour to receive the remains of such an important preacher of the Christian faith, decided to make St. Bartholomew the patron saint of the Aeolian islands. There have been many moments since then when the island residents have called on their patron saint for mercy, especially during plagues, earthquakes and barbarian attacks.
The Aeolian population firmly believe that St. Bartholomew has always protected them, even after the sacred relics had been stolen and subsequently transferred to Benevento and later to Rome, following the almost total destruction of the community by the Saracens (c. 840 AD). They still believe in the powers of their patron saint and often turn to him, asking him to intercede with God on their behalf. Their devotion is symbolised in the life-size silver statue of the saint made possible thanks to a public collection.
The statue dates back to 1728 and stands on a beautiful wooden altar in the Cathedral specifically built for this purpose.
The Cathedral also has the thumb of the saint, the only fragment of the holy relics to remain on the island, and the “Vascelluzzo d’argento”, built in 1930: an artist’s rendering of a boat to thank the saint who, according to tradition, once sent a boat loaded with grain to Lipari during a famine. This miracle saved the lives of innumerable people. St. Bartholomew has shown mercy on many occasions and so there are no fewer than 4 festivities in his honour.
The first falls on February 13, commemorating the date of his arrival. The symbolic “Asta dello Stendardo” takes place in the main square in Marina Corta, organised by the local fishing community: an elected representative who has received or requested a particular grace carries the banner in procession and theoretically becomes its custodian for a year.
The second festivity is on August 24 and is the most important, being the official holiday established by the Catholic Church. During this festival, which begins August 21, various concerts are organised, the town centre of Lipari and the Cathedral are artistically illuminated and there is an open-air market.
These events are accompanied by religious moments that culminate in the traditional procession of the Vascelluzzo statue and the Holy Relic through the streets.
The festival always ends with a spectacular firework display that sets the sky alight. The third and fourth feast-days are celebrated on March 5, at the request of local farmers, and on November 16, both dates marking narrow escapes from an earthquake.
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