Celebrated Sanctuaries of the Madonna

Third in a Series

In this series, condensed from a book written by Fr. Northcote prior to 1868 on various famous Sanctuaries of Our Lady, the author succeeds in defending the honor of Our Blessed Mother and the truth of the Catholic Faith against the wily criticism of many Protestants.

While some material covered in this and other chapters of Fr. Northcote's book have already been discussed in past issues of Salve Maria Regina (Issue No. 114; Issue No. 173), Fr. Northcote adds many interesting facts, as well as his usual excellent apologetics.

Saint Mary Major in Rome

Miracle of the SnowAncient writers enumerate no fewer than one hundred churches in the city of Rome, dedicated under various titles to the honor of the Queen of Heaven. Sixty or seventy of these yet remain; and of most of them, were we to unfold their history, or even merely to explain their titles, the record would be found full of tales of interest. Some, indeed, are named merely after this or that particular mystery of Her life, or attribute of Her power—the Annunciation, for instance, or the Purification, or Sta. Maria della Consolazione, delle Grazie, della Sanità, etc. But of others, which owed their origin to public or private vows, to visions, to miraculous cures, and the like the titles are by no means so simple in telling their own tale; on the contrary, each would require its own separate comment, thus: Santa Maria della Pace, della Vittoria, degli Angeli, etc. Others, again, have the titles of famous sanctuaries of the Madonna in other cities or countries, some memorial of which the Romans were anxious to have within their own city, such as Sta. Maria di Loreto, Monserrato, della Quercia, etc. Lastly, there are others which take their names only from their position, as Sta. Maria in Trastevere, commonly said to be the oldest of all Roman churches (see the article on St. Callistus I). The site on which it stands was taken possession of by the Christians in the days of Alexander Severus; it was an open unoccupied spot, used by the popinarii, or cooks, and the soldiers were in the habit of meeting here to eat, drink, and riot. How the Christians became possessed of it we do not know; but it is recorded that the popinarii made a formal complaint to the Emperor, and attempted to recover it. Their petition was refused, the Emperor saying it was better that God should be worshiped there under any form than that the place should be occupied by such worthless characters.

The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, however, claims our first attention; for its fame extends throughout the whole Church; the Feast of its dedication being everywhere commemorated on the 5th of August, and the miraculous circumstance attending its foundation indicated to all by the very title of the Feast, Sanctae Mariae ad Nives (Holy Mary of the Snows).

About the middle of the 4th century, a wealthy Roman and his wife, being now of an advanced age, and having no children, determined to consecrate their wealth to the honor and glory of God, and especially they desired to dedicate it in some way to Our Blessed Lady, but they found it difficult to decide on the best mode of carrying their purpose into execution. They were urgent, therefore, in their prayers to God, that He would be pleased to vouchsafe them some special token of His will for their guidance; and at length their prayers were answered. In the same night they both dreamed a dream, in which the Blessed Virgin bade them build a church to Her honor upon that part of the Esquiline Hill which they should find on the morrow covered with snow. This happened on the 4th of August, just at that season when the heat of an Italian summer is reaching the culminating point. The good Roman, however, doubting nothing of the reality of the vision, hastened to communicate it to the Pope; and there to his great surprise, he found that he had been anticipated in his intelligence, for that Pope Liberius had already received the same revelation in the same way; just as in the case of St. Peter and Cornelius, a vision was vouchsafed to each that they might be assured of God's will in a matter in which they were required to cooperate. The Pope accompanied by several of his clergy, along with John and his friends, at whose expense the church was to be built, proceeded forthwith to the Esquiline, where everything appeared exactly as had been foretold to them. Not only was the ground covered with snow, in spite of the heat of the weather, but this strange phenomenon was confined within certain limits; it covered a piece of ground of the form and size necessary for the church, and no more; just as in the signs vouchsafed to Gedeon, 'there was dew on the fleece only, and it was dry on all the ground beside;' and again, 'it was dry on the fleece only, and there was dew on all the ground.'

St. Mary MajorSuch is the ancient story of the foundation of this Basilica; and although it does not enter into our plan to institute a minute examination into the evidence upon which the story rests, nevertheless it may not be amiss to shield ourselves from all rash criticism by the authority of Pope Benedict XIV, who says in his account of the festival in which it is yearly commemorated that "it must be acknowledged that nothing is wanting to enable us to affirm with moral certainty that the prodigy of the snow is true." The Romans have a very pretty way of perpetuating its memory, which is worth recording: a shower of blossoms of jasmine is made to fall from the roof of the Basilica during the celebration of the First Vespers, and again during the High Mass, and allowed to remain upon the pavement until the feast is ended. By such means as these, pious traditions of this kind live among the Roman poor, and are "familiar to them as household words," instead of being buried in the lessons of the Breviary, or known only to curious antiquarians.

However to return to our history, the foundations of the new Basilica were immediately laid, and before the end of that pontificate (of Liberius), the whole building was completed, so as to be known for many years as the Liberian Basilica, after the name of its consecrator. In the early part of the following century the General Council of Ephesus was celebrated, and Pope Sixtus III took occasion of that memorable decision of the Church, whereby the Blessed Virgin Mary was declared to be truly Mother of God, to rebuild this Basilica to Her honor on a scale of much greater magnificence, whence it was afterwards called the Sistine Basilica. At the same time he enriched it with numerous silver patens and chalices, lamps, thuribles, and other articles of church furniture in the same costly material, with houses also and lands of considerable extent. The tribune (apse), too, of the new Basilica was ornamented with very large and elaborate mosaics, representing various subjects, historical and symbolical, all more or less commemorative of that mystery of the Faith which had just been vindicated from the blasphemous attacks of heresy. In the middle of the seventh century a famous relic, the manger in which the Infant Jesus had been laid in the stable at Bethlehem, having been brought here from the East, once more changed the title of the church, and gave it that of Sta. Maria ad Praesepe. It does not concern us to describe the later gifts of pontiffs and others, whereby the church was more and more embellished, until it attained its present magnificence; the first gold from Peru, wherewith the ceiling was enriched during the pontificate of Alexander V, the highly ornamented chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, which was erected two centuries later by Pope Sixtus V, the additions of Pope Benedict XIV, etc.

St. Luke Painting the MadonnaThat which more immediately concerns our present subject is the picture, set in a frame of lapis-lazuli and precious stones, which stands in a niche over the principal altar of that most magnificent chapel, so well known as the Capella Borghese. It is one of those portraits of the Madonna which tradition assigns to St. Luke; and although Protestants generally receive all mention of such a tradition with tokens of the utmost incredulity, it certainly is not overthrown by the arguments usually alleged against it. One writer, indeed notorious for his recklessness of assertion, and as ignorant apparently of the history of art as he is of the doctrines of the Catholic Faith, has ventured to spew, "that at the beginning of the art of painting (!), between the time of Cimabue and Giotto, there lived an artist whose name was Luke. He was a holy man, according to the holiness of the times, and confined himself to painting pictures of the Virgin Mary. The pictures popularly attributed to St. Luke are certainly belonging to that age, as every judge of the art is aware; and as this Luke was called the Holy Luke, i.e., St. Luke, he soon became confused by the roguish monks and ignorant people with St. Luke the Evangelist" (Hobart Seymour’s ‘Pilgrimage to Rome’, p. 567). Even Mrs. Jameson's account of the matter is not very different, only more moderately expressed, for her knowledge of art prevented her from falling into the ludicrous misstatement as to the chronology of the paintings in question. She assigns them an Oriental, rather than a European origin, and believes that the idea that St. Luke was a painter came into the West after the first Crusades, "with many other superstitions and traditions… It may have originated," she says, "in the real existence of a Greek painter named Luca—a saint, too, he may have been; for the Greeks have a whole calendar of canonized artists, painters, poets, and musicians—and this Greek San Luca may have been a painter of those Madonnas imported from the ateliers of Mount Athos into the West by merchants and pilgrims; and the West, which knew but of one St. Luke, may have easily confused the painter and the Evangelist."

Some Catholic writers have at various times adopted this same theory; they have gone so far as to name the precise date, some period in the eleventh century, when they assert that a painter, named Luke, really lived, and that amongst other works he painted the figure of our Blessed Lady in the Sanctuary dell'Impruneta in the diocese of Florence. But however this may be, Toraboschi (Storia della Letter. Ital, tom. Iii. Lib. 4, c. 8, ¶ 5) has shown very clearly that the tradition which represents St. Luke the Evangelist as having executed portraits of the Blessed Virgin is far more ancient than this: it is mentioned by the disciple and biographer of St. Theodorus Studites, in the ninth century (Sismondi, Op. tom. v. p. 44, ed. Paris), and in various writings published on occasion of the Iconoclast heresy at a still earlier date. Other writers therefore have accounted for the existence of the tradition in a different way. "The delineations in St. Luke's Gospel," it is said, "partake of the nature of painting, inasmuch as the poetry of painting consists in bringing out and grouping and setting before the eyes those things which are expressive of the unseen, of feelings beyond everyday life or common description; and thus metaphorically he may be considered as a painter, as abounding in the graphic scenes of a painter or a poet" (Rev. Isaac Williams, 'Thoughts on the Study of the Holy Gospel', p. 71). And as he is "the great authority," adds Mrs. Jameson, "for the few Scripture particulars relating to the character and life of Mary, he may be said, in the figurative sense, to have painted her portrait."

On the other hand, those who uphold the literal truth of the tradition, lay stress upon the unquestionable fact of the Evangelist's superior education, which (says St. Jerome: Comment. In Isia. Lib. iii. c. 6) was Grecian rather than Jewish; and if it be true, as is generally supposed, that he was born and educated in Antioch, a city remarkable for the refined habits and cultivated intellect of its inhabitants, nothing is more probable than that he should have learned the art of painting as a part of his secular education.

St. Gregory in ProcessionIt is not necessary to discuss the details of this question any further; it must always remain uncertain, and of course the authenticity of this or that painting in particular must be still more doubtful. The Lessons of the Office approved for the use of the Chapter of St. Mary Major's, speak of it as a pious belief, warranted by an old and constant tradition; and to contradict a received opinion of this kind without necessity, betokens conceit rather than true wisdom. Local tradition says of this particular picture that it was brought from Jerusalem to Rome by the Empress St. Helena, and placed in this church by Pope Liberius himself. Anyhow, it is of very high antiquity, and has always been reverenced with singular devotion by the Roman people (Salus Populi Romani). It was this picture which St. Gregory the Great was bearing in solemn procession from St. Mary Major to St. Peter's, deprecating God's wrath, and imploring the interference of His mercy to stay the plague by which the city was being depopulated, when choirs of angels were heard around it, singing: Regina cœli, lætare; Quia Quem meruisti portare, Resurrexit sicut dixit. To which the Holy Pontiff immediately subjoined, Ora pro nobis Deum; thus forming the whole of that triumphant antiphon, wherewith, amid Her own exultation at the glad tidings of Easter, the Church still celebrates the joys of the Mother of Her Risen Lord, and prays for Her intercession. At the same time was revealed to the eyes of St. Gregory, over the Mausoleum of Hadrian (for the procession was just then about to cross the Tiber), the Archangel Michael sheathing his sword, and thereby declaring, what the facts afterwards confirmed, that the plague had ceased; that God had had pity on the afflicted, and, as in the days of David, had 'said to the angel that slew the people, It is enough; now hold thy hand.'

This picture was most carefully preserved and held in reverence by all succeeding Pontiffs and by the faithful generally, until at length, in the beginning of the seventeenth century, Pope Paul V determined to build a chapel expressly for its reception. The ceremony of translating it from its old position in another part of the Basilica to this new and most splendid chapel was celebrated with extraordinary pomp, and amid an immense concourse of the people, on the 27th of January, 1613; and in a brief, dated in the autumn of the following year, the Pope sufficiently indicates the motives by which he had been influenced, when he says that "ancient records testify that this picture has been always distinguished by the devotion of the faithful, and that many and wonderful miracles have proceeded from it."

It would take too long to enumerate these miracles; and, after all, no individual examples that might be alleged could furnish so satisfactory a proof of the assertion as is to be found in the persevering devotion of the faithful, more especially of the sovereign Pontiffs themselves. It was reported, apparently on good authority, in the early years of the reign of Pope Pius IX, and whilst he resided at the Quirinal, that he might be sometimes seen, in the silent hours of the night, walking barefoot and attended by a few faithful companions to pour forth his prayers for help amid his already multiplying troubles in this favored sanctuary. But whether this be true or not, the devotion of his immediate predecessor to this picture is sufficiently notorious. What was done in the days of the first Gregory was repeated in the days of the last (Pope Gregory XVI); and twice within the space of four or five years the inhabitants of the Eternal City saw the very same picture carried along their streets which their forefathers had seen and reverenced more than twelve centuries before, and for the very same purpose—to implore the Mother of God to intercede with Her Divine Son, and remove from among them the plague of sickness. On the last occasion—the cessation of the cholera in 1837—the Pope made an offering of two golden crowns, richly ornamented with precious stones (one for the Mother, the other for the Son), to replace the crowns of silver which had been offered by various Popes in former times, from Clement VIII downward, but which had all been lost during some of the numerous political disturbances to which the city has been so often subjected.

In concluding the account of this foremost sanctuary of the Madonna, deservedly called St. Mary Major ('because it is major in dignity, not only in Rome, but in the whole Catholic world,' as St. Peter Canisius says), it is worthwhile, perhaps, to notice the remark of a Protestant traveler, that "the people of Italy are not much influenced by a taste for the arts in their religion; that they not infrequently select the very ugliest Madonnas and the most hideous crucifixions"—(we are using his words, not our own)—"as the objects of their worship," and that the spiritual history, so to speak, of any image "has far more to do with increasing the number of devout pilgrims and pious worshipers than the most exquisite handling of the pencil, or the most perfect finishing of the chisel." The latter part of this remark is undoubtedly true—and who, indeed, could wish it to be otherwise? But as to the former part, whatever may be its general accuracy, at least in the present instance it is quite inapplicable. All who have had the privilege of contemplating the Salus Populi Romani at St. Mary Major, at all closely, bear testimony to its extremely pleasing and devotional character.

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