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A Column of Strength and Devotion


Pietro Zander

Cardinal Angelo Comastri, archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica, symbolically crowns the venerated image of Our Lady of the Column, Mother of the Church, at the end of the restoration Feb. 17. (Photo by M. Falcioni, Fabbrica di San Pietro in Vaticano)

During this Year of Faith, the Knights of Columbus was proud to support the challenging restoration of the ancient and venerated fresco painting of the Madonna of the Column, also known as Mater Ecclesiae (Mother of the Church), at St. Peter’s Basilica. This important initiative gave back to the faithful an ancient and highly venerated image of the Blessed Virgin Mary — a symbol of hope amid the challenges facing the Church today.

Beginning Dec. 8, 2012, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, experienced restorers Lorenza D’Alessandro and Giorgio Capriotti, in cooperation with the Fabbrica di San Pietro, the administration charged with maintenance of the basilica, started work to refurbish the painting. The restoration concluded on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 13.

Dating back approximately 600 years, the Madonna of the Column is closely linked with the history of St. Peter’s Basilica. The image was originally painted in the early 15th century by an anonymous, talented artist — possibly from the Tuscan school. It was located on a left-side column of the central aisle of Old St. Peter’s, which had been constructed in the 4th century.

Tiberio Alfarano, the great expert on St. Peter’s, and Giacomo Grimaldi, a notary and member of St. Peter’s clergy, wrote in the 16th century that the Madonna of the Column soon became the object of a special and growing devotion, related to the many miracles that took place through her intercession. Grimaldi noted that Ludovico Bianchetti, a canon of St. Peter’s, had an altar built in front of the Madonna of the Column in 1579 at his own expense, framing the image with “precious fine marbles and splendid porphyry columns.”

Grimaldi also recounted a story about a priest celebrating Mass at the altar of the Madonna of the Column in September 1605 when a large piece of marble cornice fell off the wall. The celebrant and faithful who were present were miraculously left unharmed. On Sept. 26 of that year, at the consistory that was held at the Quirinal Palace, Cardinal Archpriest Giovanni Evangelista Pallotta told the story of this incident.

The dilapidated condition of Old St. Peter’s and the need to finish construction on the new church in the Vatican led Pope Paul V to order the demolition of the remaining part of the old basilica. Consequently, the many altars and funerary monuments within the basilica had to be dismantled.

The altar of the Madonna of the Column, built only 27 years earlier, was taken down in 1607. The shaft of the ancient column of Porta Santa marble, more than one meter in diameter, was then cut into pieces to save only the part with the venerated image of the Virgin. During this complex project, which took workers several days to complete, the part of the fresco with the face of the Christ Child was damaged beyond repair. It was thus repainted by an unknown artist.

On Feb. 2, 1607, the column fragment was solemnly brought into the new Vatican Basilica and placed over the altar built for it by the architect Giacomo della Porta. It was placed in the chapel of the southwest corner of the basilica, behind the so-called pillar of St. Veronica, where it remains to this day.

The fresco is pictured before and after restoration.

The Vatican Chapter, an administrative entity founded by Pope Leo IX in the 11th century, ceremonially crowned the Madonna of the Column on Jan. 1, 1645. The painting was among the first to receive this distinction, as the Vatican’s practice of placing precious gold crowns on venerated images of the Blessed Virgin Mary had begun only 14 years earlier.

However, the precious golden crowns were torn from the venerated image on June 2, 1798, and the painting bore the marks of this misguided and sacrilegious act. In 1825, the silversmith Francesco Ossani created new golden crowns to replace the original diadems that were cast during the turbulent days of the Roman Republic.

On Nov. 21, 1964, at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council’s third session, Pope Paul VI solemnly proclaimed the Virgin Mary as “Mother of the Church” to the applause of the council fathers. The inscription Mater Ecclesiae was later added in 1970 above the Madonna of the Column.

Finally, after the attempt on his life on May 13, 1981, Blessed John Paul II wished to place a mosaic of the Virgin Mary outside the basilica in place of one of the windows of the Apostolic Palace. The mosaic was inspired by the ancient and venerated painting of the Madonna of the Column, as a witness to and pledge of Our Lady’s motherly protection of the pope and of the whole Church. The talented craftsmen of the Mosaic Studio of the Fabbrica di San Pietro created the mosaic, which measures more than eight feet tall and features the crest of the late pope and his motto “Totus Tuus.” 

The newly completed restoration of the Madonna of the Column was preceded by several laboratory analyses using infrared, florescent and ultraviolet photography. Scientific survey and multi-spectral imaging, combined with the use of lenses and microscopes, revealed important parts of the painting that were previously hidden: the Christ Child’s feet and left hand; a golden star; part of the face, bonnet and left sleeve of the Virgin; and finally, the lower part of the 17th-century oval frame. The anchoring holes of some lost chains were also identified and the 15th-century pictorial fragment was delimited with a very slight incision. In this way, the image of the Madonna was almost miraculously preserved intact on the purple background, reproducing the color of the column. Also restored was the marvelous altarpiece made of rare and precious marble inlays that frame and enclose the ancient painting like a treasure chest.

On Feb. 17, 2013, the first Sunday of Lent, Cardinal Angelo Comastri, archpriest of the Vatican Basilica, celebrated Mass at the Altar of the Chair of St. Peter. Together with Bishop Vittorio Lanzani, delegate of the Fabbrica di San Pietro, and the clergy of the Vatican Chapter, he then processed to the altar of the Madonna of the Column. After they intoned the Salve Regina, Cardinal Comastri incensed the restored image of Our Lady.

In its newfound integrity, the Madonna of the Column will no doubt invite pilgrims and observers to greater devotion for centuries to come.

DR. PIETRO ZANDER is the chief archaeologist of the Fabbrica di San Pietro, the 500-year-old pontifical organization that has the task of overseeing the preservation of St. Peter’s Basilica, including, since 1950, the Vatican Necropolis.