Madonelle, or “little Madonnas,” are devotional shrines located throughout Italy. Also known as Marian Shrines, they typically include an icon of the Virgin Mary, and are often maintained with a small oil lamp or a candle and the placement of fresh flowers.
Dating back to ancient times, early Romans worshiped the Lares, or the spirits of the house, and placed small shrines in their honor around the home. They were also used to protect the roads and were often placed at intersections. With their frequent inclusion of an oil lamp, these devotional sites also served an important civic function as street lights, guiding the way of visitors and providing visibility and safety for locals.
When Christianity spread, pagan worship of spirits such as Lares was frowned upon, but peoples worship of devotional imagery was deeply rooted and the Church gradually accepted the practice, albeit replacing the spirit of the house with the Virgin Mary. In this way, the Madonelle serve as an important bridge in the transition between pagan worship and modern Christianity.
Madonelle today reflect the wide range of religiosity in Italian culture. More common in the deeply religious southern part of the country than in the more secular north, some have been neglected, even desecrated, while others are still venerated, regularly maintained with fresh flowers, lit candles and oil lamps.