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Protectress of the Roman People

July 7th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

A Hodegetria type icon:

Protectress of the Roman People

(Attributed to St. Luke)

Possibly dating from as early as the 5th century but repainted to a large extent in the 13th century, this icon is the most important Marian image in the city of Rome.  It now hangs in the Borghese/Pauline Chapel of Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica. The title, Salus Populi Romani (Salvation –health or well-being– of the Roman People), was given to the icon in the 19th century and has its origins in the ancient pagan legal system in which the gods were asked for permission so the praetors could pray for the city.

The Pauline Chapel of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome. The icon is rather large as panel icons go measuring about 5 feet in height.

Pope St. Gregory the Great (ca. 540-604), as a story goes, carried the icon in procession through the streets of Rome to put an end to the plague which was ravaging the city. In answer to the prayers and sung litanies of the marchers, the air cleared and became fresh and sweet. Gregory then saw an angel standing on top of the castle of Crescentius wiping a bloody sword and sheathing it. The castle was henceforth called the Castle of the Holy Angel –Castel Sant’Angelo.

Castel Sant'Angelo with close-up of angel, Rome. Bridge of the same name stradles the Tiber River in the foreground.

Prior to 1240 the icon hung over the door to the basilica’s baptistery and was known as the Regina Caeli (Queen of Heaven). For the last five hundred years it has been considered a miraculous icon and became associated with the Jesuits’ Sodality of Our Lady movement. Salus Populi Romani is also said to be the source of the title Mater ter Admirabilis (Mother Thrice Admirable) used for the Blessed Virgin Mary  within the Schoenstatt Marian Movement.

We can see that this icon is of the Hodegetria category of Marian icons. The Christ Child holds a book in his left hand and blesses with a raised right hand. He looks at his mother who, in turn, looks out at us. Mary appears rather self assured in this icon and, unlike later versions (after the 10th century), rests her hands on the child’s knee rather than appearing to point to him. She holds a mappa or mappula in one hand which was a ceremonial napkin type cloth symbolizing consular status and, later, imperial dignity; thus the title, Queen of Heaven –Regina Caeli.

This icon has enjoyed special papal devotion. Pope Pius XII, a native of Rome, celebrated his first Mass in front of this icon. Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI have honored the image with personal visits and liturgical celebrations.

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Resource suggestion:

A History of Icon Painting: Sources, Traditions, Present Day by Lilia Evseyeva, Natalia Komashko, and others; translated by Kate Cook, (Grand-Holding Publishers, Moscow 2007)

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