St. Peter's Basilica opens exhibit on Marian coronations

Someone put a crown on Michelangelo's Pietà? Crowning images of Mary, especially icons, was a practice begun in the 1600s and soon overseen by the Vatican. Now the office in charge of St. Peter's Basilica has opened an exhibit of paintings of those crowned images -- and invited journalists to check out some of the Marian images permanently on display in the basilica.

St. Peter's Basilica opens exhibit on Marian coronations

An image of the Immaculate Conception depicting a crowned Mary is seen in the Chapel of the Choir in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican May 30, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Of the more than 1,300 Marian images crowned around the world, one of the first to receive this honor does not have a crown today.

For over 350 years, Michelangelo's Pietà, instantly recognizable by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, was one of several "crowned Madonnas" in St. Peter's Basilica. Until 1924, the disproportionately large Mary bore a golden crown supported by two angels, and over the head of the limp Jesus in her lap was a halo. Coronated in 1568, the sculpture was at the beginning of a wave of Marian coronations which took off in the 17th-century.

"In the early 1600s, a Capuchin friar had the nice idea of officially coronating the Marian images that had a certain devotion, and so he went around towns and began this practice," said Pietro Zander, curator of a Vatican exhibit on Marian coronations, during a tour of the Marian imagery in St. Peter's Basilica May 30.

Michelangelo's Pieta
Michelangelo's Pietà is seen in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican May 30, 2023. The sculpture was coronated in 1568, but Mary's crown and Jesus' halo were removed in 1924. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

In 1636, the Vatican began supporting, and regulating, Marian coronations. The local community, typically a church or Marian shrine, was required to write to the Vatican confirming that the image was of "continuous and ancient devotion, used for religious purposes and generated an increase in Marian devotion," said Zander.

Once the image was crowned, the community was obliged to send a letter to the Vatican guaranteeing that the act of coronation followed the prescribed rules along with a painting of the coronated image.

"These images started arriving -- these paintings, since there wasn't photography at the time --are beautiful since they were commissioned by artists," said Zander. The paintings acted as a type of postcard meant to share each community's particular Marian devotion with the Vatican. Often, text at the bottom of the painting explained the community's devotion and told of the coronation event.

Hundreds are still preserved in the Vatican and, beginning on the feast of the Visitation of Mary May 31, 15 of them from throughout Italy will be on display in St. Peter's Basilica. The exhibit, titled "Crowned Madonnas," is organized by the Fabbrica di San Pietro, the office responsible for maintaining St. Peter's Basilica.

Each image comes from a different region in Italy and is accompanied by the story of a community's source of devotion. One image, called "Our Lady of the Stone," shows Mary with a wound on her right arm which is said to have begun bleeding after a drunken soldier threw a small rock at it. Another tells of monks finding a worn and discolored statue of Mary that miraculously returned to its original form and color during Mass and brought the withered flowers nearby back to life.

Marian exhibit
Paintings of "Our Lady of the Stone," "Our Lady of the Bridge" and "Our Lady of Graces" are displayed as part of the "Crowned Madonnas" exhibit open in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican May 31 to Oct. 7. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

Zander said the exhibit, which runs until Oct. 7, adds to the rich history of Marian devotion already present in the pope's basilica. He recalled that the first image brought into today's St. Peter's Basilica was a 12th-century fresco of Our Lady of Perpetual Help taken from the wall of the old basilica that once stood in its place.

Additionally, the image of "Mater Ecclesiae" (Mother of the Church) in the Chapel of Our Lady of the Column is taken from a piece of a column that stood in front of the old St. Peter's Basilica. Zander explained that that after the assassination attempt on St. John Paul II in 1981, the pope requested that an enlarged image of "Mater Ecclesiae" be placed above a window of the Apostolic Palace over the colonnade in St. Peter's Square to welcome visitors. The last Marian image to be crowned in the Vatican was Our Lady of Czestochowa, widely venerated in Poland and by the Polish pope, just hours before his death in 2005.

While the current exhibition shows Marian paintings from all of Italy, Zander said he hopes the basilica will rotate through its collection of "crowned Madonnas" to give a glimpse of how the mother of Jesus is venerated around the world.



With its Rome bureau founded in 1950, Catholic News Service has been providing complete, in-depth coverage of the popes and the Vatican for more than 70 years.  CNS Rome continues to be your fair, faithful and informed connection to the Holy See.