This was instituted on 9th November 1389 at the express wish of Pope Urban VI. Legend has it that one summer evening a local peasant came upon an extraordinarily beautiful noblewoman who asked him for a lift to Matera; the peasant agreed on condition that the unknown woman consented to alight from the “traino” (the traditional cart used by the Materan peasants) before they reached the city, so as to avoid any possible problems her presence might cause, but just as he was preparing to help her down, the woman vanished without trace, leaving a statue in her place. A letter given to the peasant by this mysterious woman to take to the Bishop contained her true identity. It is said that she was in fact the Virgin Mary, on her way to visit the city of Matera, and her statue is worshipped to this day. On arrival, it was given a solemn welcome by the Bishop and clergy and carried in procession around the Cathedral with great pomp and ceremony after having been conveyed three times around the Piazza del Duomo.
Nowadays the patronal festival is a complex traditional ritual of remembrance: the festival starts at dawn on 2nd July with the shepherds’ procession, reminiscent of the festival traditionally organised before they left for their fields, and involves every single part of the city, with deafening fireworks. At midday the statues of the Madonna and Child, escorted by men on horseback dressed as Roman legionnaires, are conveyed to the triumphal car made of papier-mâchè, built on a different holy theme each year by Materan masters of the art of papier-mâchè, and kept in a shed in the working-class neighbourhood of Piaccianello, near the church of the Annunziata, where this legendary marvel is said to have taken place. The car, pulled by mules and escorted by the men on horseback, the Bishops and clergy leaves here at around six o’clock in the evening bathed, in a sea of light. It is then carried three times around the Piazza Duomo and, after depositing the Madonna and Child inside the cathedral, is taken to the city centre, where the townspeople hurl themselves at it and try to smash it, each papier-mâchè piece serving as a good luck symbol that will last until the next year, the next festival and the next creation of the triumphal car.