By Elizabeth Lev
“I'm a little lamb who's lost in the wood
I know I could, always be good
To one who'll watch over me”
The haunting of notes of this 1926 Gershwin song might have made a nice soundtrack for the new exhibit at the Palazzo Venezia of the “Miraculous Panels” , fourteen images of Mary, Mother of God, dating from the sixth to the thirteenth century. These represent about a quarter of the sixty seven medieval icons remaining in the territory of Lazio.
In a deep blue room, the color of both the night sky and the Virgin’s mantle, one feels enveloped and protected by these ancient panels, glowing from the shadows like a beacon in darkness.
An image of the Madonna gazes out from each frame, still and calm. In the many centuries of their existence, these images have witnessed the prayers of millions and has offered solace through Rome’s turbulent history of wars, plagues, disasters and famines. A thousand years later, after careful and loving restorations, Mary seems ready to comfort a new millennium.
The most important work of the exhibit is the “Imago Antica” of the Madonna and Child from the Church of Saint Frances of Rome. It is the oldest extant icon in Italy, dating from the VIth century. The oldest icons in the world date from the time of Justinian and can be found in St Catherine’s monastery on Mt. Sinai in Egypt; this work is close in age to Egyptian versions. Iconoclasm destroyed most icons in the eighth century, therefore these few survivors are some of the most precious treasures in history of art and faith.
The “Imago Antica” was originally in the church of Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum, but when the church was destroyed in 847 by an earthquake the image was salvaged. Damage over the centuries occasioned heavy repainting, but during a restoration in 1950, the newer paint was detached and the original faces of the Madonna and Child came to light.
The exhibit places the over-painted image and the recovered image side by side, an exciting testimony to the powers of restoration.
Mary is seen here as Ogiditria meaning “she who shows the way”. Looking out at the viewer, she indicates the Christ Child with her long fingers. The image appears to illustrate John 14:6 “I am the way and the truth* and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”
Another venerable image is that of Mary Haghiosoritissa from the church of St. Sisto on the Appian Way. This work, dated between the seventh or eighth century, represents Mary our Advocate. Dressed in a purple mantle, Mary indicates heavenward. In the original composition first executed in Constantinople, she was placed below an image of Christ enthroned, leading the faithful to her Son. This image, crowned by the Chapter of St Peter’s on March 14, 1641, was held to have been painted by St Luke and finished by angels.
The almost ghostly appearance of Mary in these icons may be connected to Egyptian funerary art where images of the deceased were often placed on sarcophagi. Often painted on a separate panels, they were not intended so much as portraits as making present those were gone. This spiritualized portrayal translated well into making present Mary and the saints in icons.
Both of these iconographical types enjoyed immense popularity and the exhibition holds several copies from Rome’s most prestigious churches such as Ara Coeli and Santa Maria della Concezione in Campo Marzio. The version from SS Cosmas and Damian is known as the “Madonna of the Greeting” as Pope St. Gregory the Great used to pass daily to greet the image, and on one day when distracted by cares, he forgot, the Virgin came to him in a dream to ask why he had ignored her.
Another icon from St. Sylvester al Quirinale, shows a “Madonna Lactans”, one of the earliest images of Mary feeding Christ and an allusion to His humanity.
The show also features a remarkable portable altar, called the “Altar of Gregory the Great” It is kept in the museum annexed to the Church of Holy Cross in Jerusalem. Three feet high and three feet wide, it is made out of gold and brass with two doors that open to reveal a micromosaic of the suffering Christ at the center, all of extraordinary workmanship.
It was made at the beginning of the 14th century and given to the church by Duke Orsini del Balzo whose coat-or-arms appears on the work. The image of Christ is surrounded by 195 compartments for relics, each one individually wrapped in cloth and labeled.
Turning from the lifeless Christ and the relics of the many men and women who are now with Him in Heaven, we find the golden images of Mary watching over us, beckoning us to leave the darkness follow her guidance towards the Light.
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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. Her new book, “The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy's Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de' Medici” was published by Harcourt, Mifflin Houghton Press this Fall. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org