An Immaculate Exhibit; Cyril and Methodius' Day

Vatican Showing Images Inspired by Mary’s Conception

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, FEB. 17, 2005 ( Everywhere we go, Catholics know that the Blessed Virgin Mary is looking out for us. Romans are fortunate enough to have visual reminders of this all around the city. Marian shrines on street corners, statues in piazzas and elaborate frescos or tiny ancient icons in the churches attest to her constant intercession.

In 1981 John Paul II noticed that in the immense St. Peter’s Square, where Christ, his apostles and 149 other saints welcome the faithful in the broad embrace of Bernini’s colonnade, the Blessed Virgin was nowhere to be seen. He rectified this absence by commissioning a mosaic replica of the «Mater Ecclesiae» on a wall of the Apostolic Palace. She now floats above the square, reminiscent of her many apparitions in times of need.

The presence of the Virgin Mary is even more evident in St. Peter’s Square through a new exhibit titled, «A Woman Clothed with the Sun: The Immaculate Conception in the Works of the Great Masters.» Commemorating the 150th anniversary of the declaration of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, this show displays more than 100 images of the Blessed Virgin. It opened Feb. 11, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.

Paintings, sculptures, psalters and liturgical objects testify to the long and often difficult road that brought the devotion to the Immaculate Conception from popular practice to papal proclamation.

The organizers went to great lengths to obtain some of the finest artworks ever produced on the subject: Murillo, El Greco, Guercino and Carracci are all present, offering their visions of Mary to visitors.

The first rooms contain works describing the early, tentative representations of the Virgin Immaculate. These concentrate on her genealogy, picturing the Jesse tree and stories of her parents, Anne and Joachim. Side by side with these are images Mary as the Woman of the Apocalypse, «A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet and upon her head a crown of twelve stars» (Revelation 12:1), which would become a key part of the iconography of the Immaculate Conception.

Standing out among these works is an altarpiece of the «Immaculate Conception» by Juan de Juanes, dubbed the «Spanish Raphael.» Painted for the Jesuit church in Valencia, it shows the Blessed Virgin with the Holy Trinity above her head, surrounded by symbols of the Litany of Loreto.

This work, which was damaged by a bullet during the Spanish Civil War, has never left the country until this exhibit.

The next section illustrates the question of the theological disputes over the Immaculate Conception, especially between the Franciscans, who were fervent defenders of the doctrine, and the Dominicans, who were steadfastly opposed. In these works, prophets, Church Fathers and religious are depicted around the Virgin as supporters of the teaching.

The most enigmatic of these is an excellent contemporary copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s «Virgin of the Rocks,» painted for a Franciscan church in Milan during the height of the controversy over the doctrine.

Leonardo’s subtle approach to the subject and sublime painting technique has left art historians stymied as to where and how he developed such an innovative interpretation of the topic.

The walls are covered with 17th-century canvases, illustrating the first Immaculate Conception iconography as we know it today: the youthful, white-robed Virgin standing on the moon, emanating golden light, with her foot upon a serpent and crown of stars above her head.

Standing out among them are two paintings by Murillo, supreme painter of the «Inmaculada,» as he painted no fewer than 18 versions of the subject.

The first iconographically complete version by Tiepolo and Ludovico Carracci’s strikingly dramatic vision round out the collection.

The last room contains images and objects pertaining to the actual declaration of the dogma. The miter worn by Pius IX while proclaiming the dogma, a model of the column erected in the Piazza di Spagna to celebrate the event, and sketches for the immense frescos of the Borgia tower by Francesco Podesti immortalizing each step of the historic declaration make the visitor feel as if he or she were present at the occasion.

Most fittingly, the entrance hall is decked with the flags of all the European Union nations, since the stars of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception inspired the flag of the European Union.

The «Woman Clothed with the Sun» exhibit is on in the Charlemagne Wing of St. Peter’s Square. It runs until May 13, feast of Our Lady of Fatima.

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Missionary Brothers

While many feted St. Valentine on Monday, relatively few celebrated Sts. Cyril and Methodius, who also share Feb. 14 as their feast day.

These two brothers, born of high rank in ninth-century Thessalonika, gave up brilliant careers in the Byzantine imperial administration to serve God as priests and missionaries. Cyril, the younger, was an extraordinarily gifted teacher who garnered the title «the Philosopher.»

Methodius, almost 10 years older, had served as prefect of one of the frontier provinces, before he retired to a monastery. He is also remembered as a painter; tradition has it that Methodius decorated the royal palace of Bulgaria with a «Last Judgment» that impressed the Bulgarian king into converting, along with 48 of his court.

The two brothers were selected to travel to Moravia, where they were to instruct the inhabitants in the Christian faith, in the language of that land.

They learned the old Slavonic language, and to be able to translate the sacred texts for the people, they created a new alphabet, based on the sound of the native tongue, which came to be known as the Cyrillic alphabet in honor of the learned saint. They traveled throughout the Slav countries, evangelizing with great success.

After many trials and persecutions, Cyril died in Rome on Feb. 14, 869, while Methodius died in Bohemia, in 885.

John Paul II named the brothers co-patrons of Europe in 1980, extending the first of many offers of friendship toward the Eastern Churches and reminding them of our common ancestry in the great saints.

Twenty years ago, the Pope wrote the encyclical «Slavorum Apostoli» on the 11th centenary of the death of St. Methodius. He expressed gratitude to the saints as «the first Pope called to the See of Peter from Poland, and thus from the midst of the Slav nations.»

John Paul II praised Methodius and Cyril for having brought about «the entry of these peoples onto the scene of the history of salvation and into the list of European nations which during the preceding centuries had already accepted the Gospel message.»

On this year in particular, when many of these same nations just joined the European Union last May, there is all the more reason to be grateful to these two evangelizers.

But there were no hearts, chocolates or flowers, just a few followers at a special Mass in the Roman church of St. Clement, where the two brothers are buried.

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Apostle to China

The Italians have every right to be proud of their people. Scientists, artists, merchants, poets, explorers and saints have attested to the greatness of the inhabitants of this peninsula. A new exhibit at the Victor Emmanuel monument in Rome, symbol of the unification of Italy, celebrates one of her brilliant sons, Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci.

Matteo Ricci was born in Macerata in 1552. He began his studies in his hom
etown and later went Rome for his higher education. He later gained international renown as apostle to the Chinese.

The first section of the exposition, filled with 16th-century editions of Cicero and Aristotle, serves to express the intellectual climate of Ricci’s native land while statues from many religious processions present the spiritual atmosphere of Macerata, most recently appreciated by Mel Gibson, who chose this picturesque landscape for filming part of «The Passion of the Christ.»

Against his father’s wishes, Ricci joined the Jesuits, where he continued his studies under Father Christopher Clavius. Several works by this famed mathematician are visible, including the treatise on «Practical Arithmetic» as well as his commented translation of Euclid.

In 1577, Father Ricci asked to be sent to the missions in Asia. He went to Goa, and while awaiting permission to enter China, he followed the example of Sts. Cyril and Methodius by learning the local language, Mandarin Chinese.

At this point, the show presents all the difficulties that faced Father Ricci upon his arrival. Cases of statuettes of pagan deities attest to the widespread idolatry of the populace, while a watercolor portrait of Confucius represents the complexities of Chinese philosophy that the missionary would have to refute.

Father Ricci responded with humility to the pride of the Chinese that regarded all foreigners as inferiors. He studied Confucius and praised his points of contact with Christianity.

In a simple display case sits a handwritten copy of «De Amicitia,» the little book on friendship written and translated by Father Ricci which opened a huge path in the evangelization of the Chinese.

By then an accepted and respected scholar, the priest went on to gain entry into the highest echelons of Chinese society, fascinating everyone with his knowledge of cartography, geometry, mathematics and astronomy.

A copy of the immense map made by the Jesuit, which first showed the Chinese a correct view of the world and the relationship of China to other countries, dominates one of the rooms.

The profoundly influential «T’ien-chu-she-i» (The True Doctrine of God), which was Ricci’s Chinese catechism, is also on display, next to the «Paradoxes,» a very popular book for its clever literary form.

Matteo Ricci died in May 1610, and was honored by the emperor by being the first foreigner ever to be allowed burial in Chinese territory. Ricci is also the subject of the first oil painting ever made in China by a Chinese painter. The (portrait of Father Ricci, executed the day after his death by Brother Manuel Pereira, was brought to Rome in 1614 and hangs in the last room of the show.

One more little oil painting hangs in the exhibit. Before leaving for Asia, Father Ricci commissioned a copy of the Madonna Salus Populi icon in Santa Maria Maggiore and brought it with him.

It hung in the missionaries’ house in Chao-k’ing, where Chinese visitors invariably asked about its meaning. Ricci and his fellow missionaries used their curiosity to start teaching the Chinese about Christ and the incarnation, as well as instill devotion to the Blessed Virgin.

And speaking of Mary, there she is again.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome campus. She can be reached at

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