Le Madri

February 28, 2013 / Art & Archaeology
Capua, Campania
le-madri1Tucked halfway down a narrow street, the Museo Campano di Capua houses mosaics, medieval paintings, and funerary epigraphs of the Roman period. But the highlight are two rooms filled with mysterious tuff stone statues of seated mothers.

Carlo Patturelli began excavations of the “Petrara” area near ancient Capua in 1845 and discovered a large votive altar with architectural friezes, statues and Oscan inscriptions. Because his digs were illegal, the excavations stopped and only began anew from 1873 to 1887, and then again a century later in 1995.

The excavations revealed a monumental altar with columns at the corners, a square podium and a small altar in the center. The podium was accessible through a staircase flanked by sphinxes.

le-madri3The tuff statues date from the sixth to the first century B.C. All the mothers hold swaddled infants in their arms, except one that holds a pomegranate in one hand and a dove in the other. Archeologists have found traces of pigment that point to the statues having once been brightly colored, but they can’t glean much more. The female deity represented is unknown, although she was probably dedicated to motherhood, fertility and peace. The sanctuary seems to have lost its function by the first century B.C. when the sacred area became a necropolis.

Images courtesy of the Museo Campano di Capua, many thanks!

Capua, Provincia di Caserta, Museo Provinciale Campano, Matres Matutae



by Barbara Zaragoza

Barbara is author of several books, including “The Espresso Break: Tours and Nooks of Naples, Italy and Beyond” available on Amazon.com in print as well as Kindle versions.

Bonnie Alberts, Penny Ewles-Bergeron and Barbara have teamed up to create a new Naples travel guide, the Napoli Unplugged Guide to Naples. See all their articles at napoliunplugged.com or order the book at partenopepress.com.

14 Responses to “Le Madri”

  1. Giuseppe Spano
    Giuseppe Spano

    What a great find to explore,never knew it was there!sad however to see that respect for motherhood was dead or dying even at that early date. THANKS

  2. Anne Paramonczyki

    What do you think of the significance of the pomegranate and the dove ?
    I found the room very sad. Do you think their children died?

    • Archeologists surmise that the pomegranate and the dove symbolize fertility and peace. It’s interesting you thought the room looked sad, Anne. That’s another interpretation indeed. I imagined a large temple with mothers and their children all in bright colors, so it actually made me smile a bit. So interesting how we all come into the experience with different views. I surmise that archeologists do the same.

  3. Laura Gonzalez

    They seem rather protective to me. Early stone figurines like the Venus of Willendorf are often thought to symbolize fertility and life, although conversations about their meaning are speculative. Unfortunately, culture and belief doesn’t fossilize! These beautiful madri remind me of those solidly built mother goddesses of the Upper Paleolithic. Thanks for sharing.

    • That’s interesting, Laura! The Upper Paleolithic goddesses. I wonder if the worship traveled through time and through lands… and why would the worship disappear?

  4. Thank you Barbara for the article and photos… I couldn’t help but think that they are the origins of Italy’s famous mammismo (cult of motherhood) which is reputed to be the strongest in the world and why the Virgin is held in such high esteem, looking at the ancient works I see a strong relationship. Oh, the pomegranate and the dove to this day is also related to the Virgin.

    • Aaaaaah. Thank you John! To me, what you are saying is very important because it means this goddess wasn’t lost to time, but rather amalgamated into our current culture. Fascinating. Yes, I could see how they relate to images of the Virgin Mary.

  5. Giuseppe Spano
    Giuseppe Spano

    Biblically speaking in Judeo/Christian practices Pomegranates symbolize a remembrance as this had become a part of a necropolis it could have had adopted Funerary customs which comprise the complex of beliefs and practices used by a culture to remember the dead,

  6. Barbara,
    Thank you for sharing these lovely statues. Still another mystery. How many are yet to be unearthed? I always thought the pomegranate symbolized fertility? Would be so interesting to know more…

  7. John Del Monte

    Madri. Mothers…I consider MOTHERS the most important individuals walking this earth. My Mother was so effective in her role, constantly giving freely her love and concern for me; and in a unique manner laid out a philosophy by her actions that laid the foundation for me to become a citizen of this world…giving and sharing and expounding LOVE in her ways that she had so diplomatically extended to me in my earlier years and which have remained in my makeup. LOVE ONE ANOTHER — The returns are superb. Christ be with you. John

  8. Pat Carney-Ceccarelli

    Oh Barbara! How exciting. I am definitely coming to see them. The pomegranate is the reminder of Persephone- the daughter of Demeter (the Great Mother) . Persephone was abducted by the God of the underworld and Demeter was heartbroken- could not find her and all nature froze. Zeus took pity finally and sent Mercury to bring Persephone back but she ate four pomegrnate seeds before leaving so she must return four months a year to her huband- God of the underground- thus we have winter. so all is a symbol of the grand cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. did you see the italian notebook on the Fertility Vase (Feb. 14)? that was Demeter – goddess of fertility. Also the Great Mother statues very similar- to those of catalhuyok in Turkey (6000 BC).Etruscans came from Turkey- I had hoped to go there in May but can not so I will come to Capua- hope we can meet!

  9. On a recent trip to Paestum where I went to the nearby museum to see the Greek statuettes of goddesses from the fifth century B.C. depicted holding a pomegranate in one hand, a child in the other, I learned that the fertility goddess reappeared in 13th century only this time in the guise of the “Madonna della Melagrana.” A church to her was dedicated to her and sits atop a hill not far from the site of the temples. I thought this was a fascinating discovery, with the idea of the pagan goddess assimilated into the Catholic church as a Madonna, with a church dedicated in her honor. I incorporated the idea of Greek roots being an important part of the culture of southern Italian women who brought that ancient culture to places like Connecticut in my new book, which will be published in April, 2014, “Farms, Factories and Families: Italian American Women of Connecticut.”


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