Since this is the Christmas season, I thought it would be a good time to take an artistic look at the Virgin Mary; for without her we would have no reason for the season. Perhaps there is no place in the world which has celebrated the Virgin Mary more than the city of Rome. You don’t have to go to Vatican City to find the Madonna--anyone who walks around Rome for any length of time can’t help but notice the more than 500 street shrines which adorn various buildings around the city honoring the Madonna.
Picture yourself walking home after a long day of work on a dark, winding street of Rome. Your only light source is an oil lamp, illumined by a glowing Madonna. As she smiles down at you, she is holding the baby Jesus in her arms with a host of angels surrounding her. She emanates love and peace, giving you confidence that she will protect you. The shrines are an integral part of Roman history and still play a huge part in daily Roman life.
The shrines take on many forms and no two are alike. They are made out of just about every material--canvas paintings, sculptures, frescoes, terra cottas and mosaics. Some are still bright, while others are almost completely faded away. They hang from buildings on a line that separates the ground floor from the second floor. To protect them against the weather, some have baldaquins (ornamental canopies) placed above them, however many can be found in good condition even though they have no protection from the weather, theft or vandalism.
There is no documentation of age for the present-day Madonnelle, as they are called, but most range between the 17th to the early 19th century. Many show a Baroque or Neoclassical influence, however there is still a handful can be found which date back to Medieval time. The first Madonnelle does not exist. Madonnelles were done by artists who were commissioned by wealthy patrons, but a good number of them were done by common Romans themselves. However, the populace saw no need to keep records to tell us who did what because it held no importance to them. The importance was in the representation, not the act itself.
To understand the importance of the street shrines, you have to know the history behind them. The idea goes back to the 6th Century BC when shrines throughout the ancient city depicted Pagan gods. The next phase began in the 1rst Century BC with the Emperor Augustus. He split Rome into 265 neighborhoods and organized each neighborhood around its own street shrine. At this point, the shrines took on a political meaning, changing from images of Pagan gods to images of the Emperor himself.
The next significant phase for the street shrines took place in 312 AD when Constantine converted from Paganism to Christianity, and made it the state religion. Now Christians had a legalized religion, but none of the grandeur and lavishness that a state religion should have. Up to that time, early Christians had hidden their art underground in the catacombs and consequently their art was very basic and unimaginative. With the recognition of Christianity and the Emperor’s lost divinity, the street shrines morphed into depictions of Christ.
Around 350 AD, the Marian Cult who worshiped Christ through the Virgin Mary, organized and repainted the shrines throughout Rome with pictures of the Madonna or Madonnelle. The early church objected and refused to recognize Mary as a central figure in Christianity, wanting to keep the power of the church tightly in their grasp. Their stance was to ignore the street shrines.
Around 400 AD, Rome was hit by several natural disasters which eventually caused plagues to erupt. For comfort, Romans turned to their street shrines for solace and soon miracles of the Madonnelle began to occur. Consequently, during this time the Church began to see its power slipping away and out of desperation, changed their views toward the Madonna with hopes of strengthening the Church. Finally, the Church who once ignored the Madonnelle began to promote her. She was allowed to be loved and adored as the mother of Jesus Christ, but she is not to be worshipped like a Goddess. The Church was very clear on this point. Furthermore, Madonnelles that proved to be miraculous, were brought inside churches and hung on consecrated walls. The more important figures would preside over enormous churches, and some had entire churches built for them.
The first-ever recorded miracle happened in 1577. The Madonna of the Lantern, located at the base of a church on the Tiber Island, stayed lit during a flood and continued to burn underwater. Common miracles performed by Madonnelle include weeping, bleeding and healing. As recent as 1976, starting on July 4th and lasting for three weeks, the Madonna Annunciata could be seen moving her eyes. In a city famous for ancient relics of a bygone time, perhaps the greatest miracle of all is that the street shrines are still in existence, not only do they exist but after 26 centuries hold a significant role in the fabric of Roman life.