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How Mary Gained Her Crown


Columbia Staff

A crowned Madonna in the Virga Jesse Basilica in Hasselt, Belgium, which was crowned in August 1867. (Fabbrica di San Pietro in Vaticano, F.S.P 0617)

As a formal acknowledgement and expression of encouragement to devotion inspired by certain artistic images of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Vatican has historically "crowned" these images and retained reproductions. Over the past eight years, a collection of nearly 100 images has been restored with the objective of exhibiting them at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Conn.

Columbia spoke with Dr. Pietro Zander, who coordinated the restoration, about the new exhibit, which opened May 8 and is titled "Full of Grace: Crowned Madonnas of the Vatican Basilica."

A Knight of Columbus, Zander is the chief architect 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 and the Vatican Necropolis.


Columbia: How does an image of Mary become a crowned Madonna?

Zander: The practice of placing a crown on the Virgin Mary's head and that of the child Jesus dates back to the beginning of the 1600s. To crown a Madonna, one had to carry out a series of formal steps and write a letter to the Vatican, requesting permission to crown an image of Mary that was considered particularly important for worship. Documentation had to demonstrate the history of religious devotion and the occurrence of miraculous events. The Vatican would then examine this documentation before giving its approval to crown the Madonna — a very exclusive privilege.

The crowned Madonnas are part of a history of devotion to Mary that traverses time and space. Here we have paintings that span four centuries and cover a vast area, from Europe to Latin America. And behind every one of these paintings, there is a story of devotion that originated with the people and that became important enough to merit the building of great shrines.

The last Madonna to be crowned inside the Vatican Basilica was the Polish Madonna, the Madonna of Częstochowa. She was crowned [in 2005] just a few hours before the death of Blessed John Paul II, when pilgrims were praying for the dying pope inside the chapel. When the pontiff heard the news, he seemed quite pleased that the coronation took place in his own Polish chapel, which was actually restored with support from the Knights of Columbus.

Columbia: Could you please tell us about the Vatican's collection?

Zander: The collection portrays images that have perhaps deteriorated over time or, in some cases, have completely vanished. We keep only the pictorial copies, as we no longer have the originals, but these paintings still retain a remarkable historical significance.

There were about 1,300 coronations of Mary from the establishment of the process in 1636 up to 1985. However, we are showing just a selection of those paintings that are still kept at the Fabbrica di San Pietro. The collection has approximately 100 paintings in all. Ninety-eight of them were sent [to the Knights of Columbus Museum]. They have never been out of the Vatican and have been unknown to the world until now. I hope that the exhibit might spark a lot of interest, both for the aspect of devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and for the great significance it has to art history.

Columbia: You mentioned miraculous events being attributed to the images. What are some examples?

Zander: The miracles related to the images are diverse and wonderful events. For example, there have been people who weren't able to speak but who regained the ability after crying out for the Virgin Mary to intercede on their behalf. There have been entire cities that were saved from dreadful diseases thanks to the protection of the Virgin, as well as the sudden ending to periods of terrible famine.

Columbia: How has the Knights of Columbus worked with the Fabbrica di San Pietro in the past?

Zander: We say that there are two generations that are carrying on this collaboration with the Knights of Columbus. My father, who also worked as an architect for the Fabbrica di San Pietro, started working with [Past Supreme Knight Virgil C. Dechant] in the beginning of the 1980s to coordinate the significant work that was done on the façade of St. Peter's and in the Vatican grottoes. This collaboration has since continued with other work that is much smaller, but also beautiful and important.