Unveiling the Beauty of Our Lady of Help
During the Year of Faith, following the February restoration of the Vatican’s Madonna of the Column, the Knights of Columbus was proud to support a sister initiative to refurbish the most important and beloved image of Mary in St. Peter’s Basilica. Situated above the altar of the Gregorian Chapel, the freshly unveiled Madonna del Soccorso (Our Lady of Help) now greets pilgrims and visitors in all the splendor of her original likeness.
The much-needed work of restoring the tarnished and timeworn fresco was accomplished by Lorenza D’Alessandro and Giorgio Capriotti under the technical direction of the Fabbrica di San Pietro, the administration charged with maintaining the basilica. The painstaking project involved extensive preliminary research and testing, including infrared, fluorescent and ultraviolet photography. Such preparation allowed the restorers to reconstruct for the first time with scientific precision the centuries-long history of this poignant image, which has always been considered the basilica’s preeminent icon of Our Lady.
A PRIVILEGED PLACE
During the Middle Ages, this image of the Madonna and Child was venerated in the southern transept of Old Saint Peter’s, the fourth-century basilica built by the Emperor Constantine, where it was set in a niche above the altar of St. Leo the Great (440-461). Having deteriorated over time, the painting was replaced in the second half of the 15th century by a fresco that was created by a talented artist and based on the earlier Marian image.
In 1543, in the process of razing the old basilica to make way for the present-day structure, Pope Paul III transferred the fresco of Our Lady. Unpublished archival letters and long-forgotten literary sources document the removal of the fresco from its original location, a task that required cutting it away from a wall and then repainting lower portions of the image and background. For more than 50 years, the fresco remained exposed above an altar next to the bronze statue of St. Peter, within a section of the fourth-century basilica that was spared demolition.
It was Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1585) who decided to move the fresco again, transferring Our Lady of Help into the Renaissance basilica still under construction. He did so in order to accommodate the ancient yet ever-growing devotion to this image “full of grace.” Thus, on Feb. 12, 1578, the first Sunday of Lent, the Marian icon was borne in solemn procession to the Gregorian Chapel, adorned by the pope with colored marble, precious stones and resplendent mosaics. This marked the first time that a sacred image had been exposed for veneration in the new basilica. To serve as background for the fresco, set like a gem within a frame of green quartz, a star-studded sky was added, surrounded in turn by eight magnificent gilded bronze cherubs.
In 1580, the relics of St. Gregory of Nazianzus (330-390), a father and doctor of the Church, were housed beneath the altar. Shortly thereafter, a wooden tabernacle for the Blessed Sacrament was installed. The altar of the Gregorian Chapel thus became the first of the basilica’s seven privileged altars attached with particular indulgences.
On Nov. 17, 1643, the Madonna del Soccorso was ceremonially crowned by the Vatican Chapter, an administrative entity founded in the 11th century. The original golden crowns, however, were lost during the Napoleonic confiscations of 1798; the current ones date from the second half of the 19th century.
Four years later, in tandem with the removal of the tabernacle from the 16th-century altar, the fresco of Virgin and Child was detached as well. Since the lower part of the painting had suffered irreparable damage, it was reduced in size. Moreover, smoke from candles and lamps had so besmirched the image that it was nearly unrecognizable. An anonymous painter attempted to rejuvenate the faces with flesh-colored pigments while maintaining maximum respect for the underlying features.
This retouched Marian image was then inserted within a smaller niche. Under the direction of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, master masons Balsimello Balsimelli and Giovanni Maria Fracchi created an elegant tableau of inlaid colored marble beneath the fresco depicting an alabaster vase with roses and white lilies, symbols of charity and purity.
The anonymous artist who painted the Madonna del Soccorso employed key Christian symbols from medieval iconography. The blue mantle Mary wears over her red tunic points to the divine favor that embraces her. Similarly, the red garment draping the Christ Child’s shoulder points to his true human nature. The orb surmounted by a cross symbolizes Christ’s divine authority as both Pantocrator (ruler of all) and Salvator mundi (savior of the world). Finally, in a gesture of blessing, the Christ Child signals his divine and human natures with his right index and middle fingers, while his two other fingers and hidden thumb indicate the three persons of the Blessed Trinity.
In recent centuries, Our Lady of Help — also called the Gregorian Madonna, after both the Nazianzen saint and the Italian pope — has continued to receive the prayers of countless pilgrims and faithful seeking comfort and aid. In this regard, it is significant that a moment of prayer before the Virgin of Help forms part of the protocol of official visits to the basilica by Catholic ambassadors accredited to the Holy See. It is also worthy of note that, in 2009, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, in answer to a request from the Vatican Chapter, gladly approved the celebration of the liturgical memorial of the Madonna del Soccorso for the Vatican basilica on May 24. This is an act of worship and devotion in continuity with the centuries-long tradition of the basilica.
The team of experts that completed the restoration was fully aware that what had been entrusted into their hands was not only of extraordinary artistic value, but also of ancient, living and uninterrupted devotion. Lorenza D’Alessandro, the principal restorer of Our Lady of Help, had already refurbished St. Peter’s Madonna of the Column (Mother of the Church) earlier this year with K of C support. Guided by similar archival research and imaging techniques, she was again able to carefully remove layer upon layer of paint that had been applied over the centuries to the fresco. This task was long and laborious, executed by hand with patience and precision, and with the aid of lenses and microscopes. Day after day, the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Christ Child revealed itself — like a marvelous apparition — before the restorers’ eyes in all of its unexpected and unaltered glory. Through iconographic comparisons and technological tests, this exquisite fresco can be traced back to the artistic circle of Pietro Perugino, who worked in St. Peter’s and the Vatican during the pontificate of Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484).
After verifying that an ornamental brooch had originally embellished the front of the Virgin’s tunic, the Fabbrica di San Pietro wanted to offer a special gem to Our Lady in its place. Thus, a jewel inspired by 14th-century designs was crafted: an oval of blue agate, which is mounted in a golden frame inscribed with the Marian invocation MARIA SUCCURRE NOS (Mary, help us) and the name of Pope Francis. In sum, the new brooch is intended as a gift to our heavenly Mother, an offering of renewed devotion to Our Lady of Help and a remembrance of the first restoration carried out under Pope Francis in the Vatican basilica.
Pope Paul VI’s pronouncement on March 25, 1973, at the completion of the restoration of Michelangelo’s Pietà, is equally fitting with regard to this important work: “It is our hope that this restoration will restore within the souls of the men and women today the figure of Mary — she who is the masterpiece of God’s grace precisely because she is the Immaculate Mother of Christ in the flesh, and thus Mother of the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ.”
DR. PIETRO ZANDER is the chief archaeologist of the Fabbrica di San Pietro, the 500-year-old pontifical organization that oversees the preservation of St. Peter’s Basilica, including, since 1950, the Vatican Necropolis.