The icon in the sanctuary is the gift of a friend of the parish who wanted to donate something “Roman” to the Basilica. My thoughts turned immediately to the most famous and venerated icon of the Mother of God in Rome: Salus Populi Romani: Protectress of the People of Rome. It has been in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major since the Basilica’s mid-5th century rebuilding, commemorating the Council of Ephesus , countering the Nestorian heresy. The Basilica, the oldest in the West dedicated to the Mother of God, and this icon, are the Church’s popular expression of the Council’s theological response to that heresy: Jesus is God from all ages, who became a man in the womb of Mary: therefore, Jesus is both man and God, and Mary is not merely the mother of the man, Jesus, but of the God-Man, and can be called the Mother of God.
The icon dates from the 5th century, and first came upon the world scene when Pope Saint Gregory the Great led a procession in 597 through the streets of Rome with the icon, praying for the end of the plague which had killed thousands. Originally enthroned atop the doorway to St. Mary Major’s baptistery, by the 17th century it was “restored” and placed in its present magnificent Borghese chapel.
Ours is an exact, hand painted replica of the original, in oil paint and gold leaf by Grace DeVito. Its measurements are those of the original: 5 feet by 3 1/4 feet. On either side of the Virgin’s head are two Greek abbreviations, identifying the subject: on the left the Greek letters for M-R; on the right, Th-U: abbreviations for Mother of God: She is stately in her bearing, yet not aloof from us. She is dressed simply yet elegantly in a dark blue mantle over a russet and gold tunic. On her finger is a ring—she is a Roman noblewoman of late Antiquity. In her hand, she grasps an embroidered handkerchief, similar to those first carried by women of the Roman senatorial class and, in the late Empire, only by the Roman empress. Mary’s suggests the early Church’s belief that she is the Second Eve and the Queen of Heaven.
The golden star on her shoulder tells us that she is the Immaculate Conception—the woman preserved by God from Adam’s Original Sin, so she could be the sinless Virgin in whose womb the Eternal Son of the Father joined Himself to our human nature in a human body and soul. The golden cross on her forehead tells us whose mother she is—the Eternal Son who became man in order to die for humanity’s sins: Mary is the virgin mother of the Incarnate and Crucified Lord. She gently holds and protects Her Son, encircling Him with both hands.
The Infant sits comfortably and securely on His Mother’s lap, holding the Book of the Gospels, with His right hand raised to bless us. But He first looks up to His Mother, as if asking if it’s O.K. to bless those looking at the icon. She looks out to us, inviting us to enter into the Divine Love of God made visible in Her Son, as a sign that it would be the polite thing to do if He would bless us who have come to visit Mother and Son. Our Lord’s right hand is raised to bless using the form of blessing exclusively by the Pope in the Latin Church: it is the most ancient of forms, common in the Orthodox Churches, with the fingers forming the Greek word Fish—Ixthus. In the ancient Church, both in the east and the west, the fish was both a symbol of Jesus and a creedal expression of faith. For each letter of Ixthus stands for the first letter of each word in the Greek sentence: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. In this icon, Our Lord raises His right hand to bless us with His power as the Incarnate Son of God, the Savior, and not merely as a child or even as a prince.
According to legend, when Pope Saint Gregory the Great led the procession through the Roman streets in 597 with this icon, a choir of angels greeted Her chanting:
“Queen of Heaven rejoice, alleluia; the Son Whom you merited to bear, alleluia; has risen as He said, alleluia; pray for us to God, alleluia; rejoice and be glad, Oh, Virgin Mary, for the Lord is truly risen, alleluia.” This is the prayer we recite daily before Mass during the Easter season.
Salus Populi Romani has been venerated for centuries by the people and the popes of Rome. Among the more recent popes, Pope Pius XII crowned the icon in 1954 when he created the Feast of the Queenship of Mary [August 22nd]; Popes John XXIII and Paul VI visited her often in pilgrimage; Pope John Paul II led processions through Rome to Saint Peter’s with her, presiding over an ecumenical service with representatives from the Orthodox Churches, joining in the singing of the ancient Akathistos Hymn to Mary, Mother of God and Queen of Heaven; most recently, Pope Benedict XVI made a pilgrimage to Her shrine soon after his election in 2005.
Our Lady, Protectress of the Roman People, is welcomed to the Basilica of Saint John the Evangelist, as a reminder to us of Her role in our salvation: Her total and uncompromising dedication to God brought forth the Incarnate Mercy of the Most High. She continues to intercede for us to Her beloved Son. This beautiful icon, a gift of a friend of the parish, will be permanently enshrined in the Basilica. Please offer a Hail Mary for the anonymous donor and his family each time you visit Our Lady, and pray for Our Holy Father, that the Mother of God and Her Divine Son, might strengthen him as he continues the work of Saint Peter in the world.