May is the month when spring arrives in Rome in all its splendor, and citizens and visitors alike rejoice in the sunlight, scented jasmine and budding roses. Perhaps this is why one’s thoughts turn so easily to Mary during this, her special month.
In that same spirit of cheerfulness, it seemed appropriate to offer a “decade” of sorts, the 10 most delightful images of Our Lady in the Eternal City. Certainly the list is short for the number of glorious representations of Mary in this town, and many readers will have other favorites, but these are enough to embark on a Marian pilgrimage either in the city or in front of a computer. In the spirit of Pope Francis, perhaps it would be nice to offer a few Hail Marys before these beloved images.
10. Santa Maria del Popolo, Cerasi Chapel “The Assumption” oil on canvas, Annibale Carracci, 1601.
This earthy image of Mary forsakes any idea of an ethereal weightless creature in a lofty distant setting. The apostles form a rainbow of color around the fresh-faced, luminous Virgin. The voluminous drapes and almost sculptural quality of Mary underscore her bodily assumption into Heaven and her joyfully expectant expression cues viewers to how we too should eagerly await the moment when we will join her.
9. Santa Maria in Trastevere, apse mosaic, “Mary, Queen of Heaven”, unknown artist, 1150ca
In the dazzling image, the Blessed Mother seems almost obscured by the elaborate Byzantine robe and her pearl-encrusted crown, but her serene visage manages to shine out in its elegant simplicity. The most striking thing in the mosaic is the unusual asymmetry caused by Mary sharing the throne with her Son. And for all the formal courtly trappings, the affectionate gesture of Christ’s arm about her shoulders reminds us that she may be Queen of Heaven, but Mary is first and foremost Jesus’ mother, and ours.
8. Vatican Museums “Madonna of Foligno” tempera on panel, Raphael, 1512
This work once adorned the Basilica of Ara Coeli on the Capitoline Hill. Raphael was at the height of his powers at the time, ready to challenge Michelangelo for the title of Rome’s greatest artist. In this tour de force of light and shadow, cherubs appear as clouds as the Virgin seems to descend into our space. John the Baptist indicates the Mother and Child, while looking out at the viewer. Meanwhile, St Francis gazes at the Holy Family in adoration, gesturing toward the faithful. We are invited to come toward Mary as she moves toward us.
7. St Mary Major Borghese Chapel “Madonna Salus Popoli Romani” or “Protectress of the Roman People” tempera on wood panel, unknown artist
Rome’s most beloved icon has been venerated for over a millennium. One of the earliest extant icons in the city, it presents the Madonna and Child in a comfortable embrace. Jesus looks lovingly up at his mother while Mary gazes out toward the viewer, inviting us to confide our hopes, fears and needs to her, so she can intercede with her Son. On the first day of his pontificate Pope Francis crossed town to pray before this image, asking Mary to help him as he assumed the awesome responsibility of Roman Pontiff.
6. Spada Gallery, “Madonna and Child” oil on canvas, Artemisia Gentileschi, 1613ca
Artemisia, one of the first women painters to achieve fame, gives us an intimate image of motherhood, which had never been seen before. The playful Christ child, soft, golden and warm, curls on Mary’s lap, reaching up to stroke her face. Mary closes her eyes and absorbs the scent, warmth, weight and touch of her Son, in a tender moment that will resonate with any mother. The bond she forges between the two makes this one of my all-time favorite paintings.
5. Sant’Agostino “Our Lady of Safe Delivery” marble sculpture, Jacopo Sansovino, 1516
This stately Madonna was modeled after an ancient Roman empress, giving her greater gravitas than the oval-faced, rosebud-lipped Madonnas of the Middle Ages. Yet this is one of the most venerated images in the city, as she watches over the expectant mothers of Rome. Her foot has been rubbed away by faithful hands reaching out in prayer and she is surrounded by ex-votos in thanks for favors received. Silver hearts fill glass cases and her aedicule is festooned with pink and blue ribbons announcing recent births. On her feast day, Oct. 9, the church is filled with pregnant women who come for the traditional blessing.
4. Sant’Agostino, Cavalletti Chapel “Madonna of Loreto,” Caravaggio, 1604
A few feet away and a hundred years later, Caravaggio painted this striking Madonna in the same church. Mary appears to two pilgrims, whose dirty feet and worn attire attest to a long physical journey both in distance and in poverty. Yet this man and woman are transfigured by the sight before them, light and joy radiating from their faces. Mary leans in the doorway, holding her unwieldy bundle of Grace while straining her head towards the pair, perhaps to hear their petitions. Christ’s face remains in the shadows for us, the latecomers, as a beam of mysterious light connects the pilgrims to the heavens through Mary. Caravaggio’s masterpiece contains a pointed admonition, that the humility of these poor pilgrims is more pleasing than all the accomplishments and splendid gifts of the proud.
3. Via del Pellegrino, “Madonnella of the Immaculate Conception with St Philip Neri,” stucco, Francesco Moderati, 1741.
Mary has been watching over the pedestrians of Rome for centuries from the little shrines erected along the major crosswalks. At night, in a city without street lights, she would guide the Romans safely home, and during the day, she offered a friendly face in the rough city streets. This Madonnella, as the street images were called, was paid for by Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, and features St Philip Neri, who also frequently traversed the streets of Rome looking for souls that had lost their way. Opulent and baroque, this shrine calls out for attention and invites us to realize that we are never alone wherever we may wander.
2. Quirinal Palace, Chapel of the Annunciation, “Sewing Madonna” fresco, Guido Reni, 1611
In one of the most unusual depictions of Mary in art, she sits sewing quietly as angels assist her in her work. Her gestures are delicate and the angels are absorbed in her very human pursuit. It seems like a very humble image of the Mother of God to adorn the chapel of a pope, but Pope Paul V Borghese placed his kneeler in front of it, for his personal meditations. A corridor extends into the distance on the right, illuminated by a bright light — this is the path of her future. Two angels frolic overhead carrying scrolls of prophesies. “The virgin shall be with child” (Is 7:14) reads one while the other suggests God’s plan for Mary from the time of Genesis: “He who called her called her from the beginning.” We can share in the peaceful quiet of her daily work preparing for the great tasks that lie ahead.
1. St Peter’s Basilica, “Pieta,” marble sculpture, Michelangelo, 1500
Michelangelo’s masterpiece, so well known and so beloved, remains the most memorable image of the blessed Virgin. Unlike previous versions of the same subject where the carver focused on the tortured body of Christ, the Roman Pietà gives us a beautiful Christ stretched across his mother’s lap. Michelangelo effectively draws our attention away from the lifeless body of Christ to the heroic efforts of Mary, who looks at her Son, the Child she has dedicated her entire life to raising, dead in her arms. He was beautiful, He was good and He was God, how can it end this way? Mary doesn’t question the will of the Father, but bows her head in the same fashion that she acquiesced before Gabriel, permitting all to be done to her according to God’s will.
Michelangelo gives us heroic submission, the most important “I do” in history, and the constancy to bring that fiat to the foot of the cross. She inspires all of us, this exceptional Mary, from the cave in Bethlehem (represented here by her arm clasping her Son close), to Golgotha (seen in the open hand stretched towards the altar where the Mass represents the sacrifice of Christ). She was there when He first saw the light of day and she was there when He was laid in the dark tomb. The enduring medium of marble so appreciated by Michelangelo reminds us that she, our Church, will always be there to draw us closer to her Son and to bring Him to us.
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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. A new paperback version of her book, “The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici” was published by Harcourt, Mifflin Houghton Press this Fall. She can be reached at [email protected].