Messina’s “Vara”: five centuries in procession
Messina’s “Vara” is over 13 meters tall, and parades in front of a long procession held in the Sicilian city every year on August 15, on the day of the Assumption. In the past, “women, youths, priests, and children dressed in wonderful costumes as virgins, angels, saints and prophets” climbed up on the tiered cart. On top, “the most beautiful woman in Messina was placed, representing the Holy Virgin” (G. Cappelletti, “La chiese d’Italia”, Antonelli, Venice 1870).
“Vara” (“bara” in Italian) means coffin: the whole event is an allegorical celebration of Mary’s “dormition” – the deep sleep during which she was taken up into heaven without dying.
Cappelletti goes on to describe a “gyrating pyramid, on an elaborate base with wheels. Put in motion by priests and confraternities, it was arranged so that the wheels turning would make the pyramid, angels, saints, virgins, and popes spin”.
Nowadays, the towering cart continues to be pulled by hundreds of faithful Christians with long hawsers, but is decorated with papier-mâché figures instead of real people. The procession, indeed, was quite stressful for the children: “Some cried, some screamed, some messed up their hair with their hands, some ate something to calm down, some suffered one way and some the other… Until finally they reached the Cathedral, and were immediately taken down from the cart and led back to their mothers or families at home” (“Lettere del signor abate Domenico Sestini scritte dalla Sicilia e dalla Turchia a diversi suoi amici in Toscana”, Carlo Giorgi stampatore, Livorno 1784).
The procession now has approximately five centuries of history, and the people in Messina still enjoy and engage in it every year – creating a spectacular celebration and shared moment of joy.