Our Lady of the Vallicella

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Our Lady of the Vallicella. I don’t know who painted this version. (Source)

Today is the Feast of Our Lady’s nativity. Nine months after the Immaculate Conception, we celebrate the luminous and holy birth of the one who would some day give birth to God Himself. As the Church rejoices with S.s. Anne and Joachim, perhaps we should consider the manifold titles under which Mary has come to be known over the centuries.

Some religious orders have devotions to Our Lady under particular titles. The Cenacle Sisters are devoted to Our Lady of the Cenacle, the Institute of the Incarnate Word takes as its patron the Virgin of Luján, and most famously, the Redemptorists were commissioned by Pope Pius IX to care for and propagate devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The Dominicans appeal to Our Lady of the Rosary, the Augustinians to Our Lady of Good Counsel, and the Franciscans to Our Lady, Queen of Angels.

But what of the Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri? Is there a Marian image, title, or devotion proper to the Oratorians? Since the Oratory is not a religious order, the question may seem ill-put. Nevertheless, some research shows that there is in fact a specifically Oratorian icon of the Mother of God: Our Lady of the Vallicella.

It is related in various lives of St. Philip that, during the construction of the Chiesa Nuova, Our Lady miraculously saved the church. As Gallonio relates in his Vita:

In the following year, 1576, something happened during the building works, which I must not pass over in silence. When the old church had been demolished, along with other buildings on the site of the new construction, one little hovel remained roofed, after the others had been levelled. Suddenly one day Philip had Giovan Antonio, the clerk of works, summoned, and as soon as he arrived he told him to have the roof taken off the hovel immediately. “Last night,” he explained, “I saw the Holy Mother of God, who was holding it up with her own hands.” (The place was being used as a chapel to say Mass and administer the sacraments to the people, for the old church had the responsibility of souls attached to it.) Giovan Antonio went back and ordered the workmen to demolish the roof. As soon as they set to, they noticed that the beam which supported the roof had no support for itself; one of its ends (what they call the beam’s head) was quite out of the wall, which quite astonished those who saw it [Gallonio, Para. 112 – trans. Fr. Jerome Bertram CO].

This incident is memorialized in the ceiling of the Chiesa Nuova.

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The ceiling of the Chiesa Nuova, in which is depicted the scene of Our Lady preserving the Vallicella from collapse and ruin. (Source)

It is my understanding that the Saint and his sons attributed the miraculous intervention of Our Lady to an ancient fresco they uncovered during construction. The image depicts Our Lady in blue holding the Infant Christ. Jesus raises his hand in blessing. Both are seated in the moon, while three adoring cherubs look up with rapt attention. These are the essentials of the icon, which canonically follows the “Nicopeia (bringer of victory) or Kyriotissa (enthroned) type.”

This conjunction suggests something about the icon’s meaning. The Mother of God brings us the ultimate victory, Christ Himself; His victory over death is truly her victory and, by extension, ours. What’s more, their relationship is a mutual enthronement. She takes all of her dignity as Queen of Heaven from Christ, and He is most magnified in Her Heart.

It seems appropriate that an image that bears such a meaning would fall to St. Philip and his sons as a kind of special inheritance. After all, Cardinal Newman’s motto encapsulates the entirety of Oratorian life: Cor ad Cor Loquitur, “Heart Speaks to Heart.” This phrase of the Psalmist describes God’s Liturgical communion with us, our spiritual communion with each other, the key process of evangelizationbut also the intimacy between the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. And let us not forget that third heart, the Flaming Heart of St. Philip Neri. All in all, communion and reciprocity are key to Oratorian spirituality in a way that is perhaps more pronounced than in other religious families.

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The ancient, miraculous fresco-icon of Our Lady of the Vallicella. Currently hidden in the Chiesa Nuova behind the Rubens rendition. (Source)

The story of Our Lady of the Vallicella is not just theological, though. It also winds through some of the more important chapters of Art History.

The great Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens was commissioned by the fathers of the Roman Oratory to paint the church’s high altar. He ended up painting a few. The first, a canvas, was rejected because it was too reflective and is now in a museum at Grenoble. The second, a painting on slate, remains in situ. He later painted a somewhat rougher third version that now hangs in the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.

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Pope St. Gregory, Surrounded by Saints, Venerating the Miraculous Image of the Virgin and Infant, called Santa Maria of the Vallicella, Rubens, c. 1606-07. The first altarpiece of the Chiesa Nuova, now in Grenoble. (Source)

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Madonna della Vallicella, Rubens, 1606-08. The second altarpiece, now in situ at the Roman Oratory. The central image of the Madonna is removable and covers the miraculous fresco. (Source).

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The Madonna della Vallicella Adored by Seraphim and Cherubim, Rubens, 1608. Now in Vienna. (Source)

Of course, devotion to Our Lady of the Vallicella is, like so many other elements of Oratoriana, not restricted to the sons of St. Philip. As the whole city of Rome is imbued with his spirit, we find her image among the many picturesque street shrines that stand as one of the Eternal City’s most distinctive forms of public piety.

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Our Lady of the Vallicella in a Roman street shrine. Note the way the hands are positioned; Our Lord’s left hand on the Orbis Mundi, with Our Lady’s right. Conversely, His right hand rises in blessing as her left seems to hold or even crown him. This posture is consistent with earlier renditions. (Source).

Regardless, Our Lady of the Vallicella quickly became a major emblem of the Congregation. She adorns most of the first-edition title pages of Baronius’s Annales Ecclesastici, as you can seen in this image from the Twelfth Volume.

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The title page of the Twelfth Volume of the Ecclesiastical Annals of Cardinal Baronius. (Source)

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Our Lady of the Vallicella in a portrait of Fr. Antonio Talpa, one of the founders of the Naples Oratory and the confessor of St. Camillus of Lellis. I don’t know how old the image originally is. Photo taken from the 2008 English Edition of Cardinal Capecelatro’s Good Philip, produced by The Desert Will Bloom Press. Page 111.

Later Oratorians also made use of the icon in their publications. This was particularly true of works brought out by the Fathers of the London Oratory. A publication of Fr. Faber’s Spiritual Conferences from 1859 includes the following sigil on its title page:

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Our Lady of the Vallicella in one of Father Faber’s many books (Source).

More recent Oratorians have also included this image of the Mother of God on the volumes they have published. For example:

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Our Lady of the Vallicella as seen on the title page of my copy of Agnelli’s The Excellences of the Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, Third Edition (Oxford 2012).

What I have not found yet is any evidence that Our Lady of the Vallicella was enshrined or venerated as an icon anywhere outside of the Roman Oratory. Further research may prove otherwise. Nevertheless, it is my sincere hope on this Feast of the Nativity of Mary that, as we are living in an Oratorian age, devotion to Mary under her Oratorian title will continue to spread.

 

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Our Lady of the Cenacle in Armenian Iconography

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Figure A. Our Lady of the Cenacle, pray for us. From the source: “MINIATURES – Erevan, Matenadaran, MS 8772, Gospel, Aght’amar, Vaspurakan, 1391, artist Dzerun, Pentecost. Photo: Dickran Kouymjian.” (Source)

Throughout the Latin Church, Saturday in the Ascension Octave is kept as the Feast of Our Lady of the Cenacle. On this holy day, we remember the Mother of God keeping vigil with the Apostles in the Upper Room, or “Cenacle.” The place is significant. Here, Christ gathered the Twelve on the night of his betrayal, Maundy Thursday. At that time, He instituted the priesthood and the Eucharist. Later, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit will descend upon the congregation and truly constitute the Church as such, confirming its sacramental essence and mission in the world of time.

Mary’s position in this unique place at this unique time is captured in the title, “Our Lady of the Cenacle.” But that name conceals a much deeper mystery. What, precisely, was she doing in the Cenacle? Why was she there? And does her presence, never mentioned in the Bible, nevertheless retain important meaning for us today?

As with any mystery unspoken in Scripture but passed on to us by the Tradition, we can approach it by many paths. One of the wonderful things about the Church is that, in her sacramentality, she recasts everything in the light of Christ and opens all things to a deeper meaning than we ordinarily encounter. So today, I’d like to consider Our Lady of the Cenacle through art. Specifically, iconography. Even more specifically, Armenian illuminated manuscripts.

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Figure B. A Greek-style Russian icon of 1497. Note the emptimess of the “Teacher’s Seat” at center. (Source)

In the Greek iconographic tradition, Pentecost is usually depicted with an empty seat in the center…the place of Christ the King and Teacher, who has ascended and sent the Holy Spirit in his stead. The icon for the feast of mid-Pentecost dovetails with this custom, as it depicts Jesus the youth instructing the teachers of the Law in an arrangement that approximates that of Pentecost proper. The Russian and Slavic iconographic tradition largely copies this model, with one notable exception. Many Russian iconographers include the Mother of God in what would ordinarily be the empty “Teacher’s Seat.” As one writer puts it, “Mary is therefore shown in the ‘teacher’s seat’ as the best example we have, and the person on earth who most resembled Jesus Christ (both physically, as His mother, and spiritually as His disciple).” Indeed.

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Figure C. A Russian-style icon with the Mother of God in the “Teacher’s Seat,” date unknown. (Source).

The Armenian iconographic tradition differs from both the Greek and Russian streams in important ways, not all of which we can get into here. For our purposes, it is enough for us to observe that the Armenians have a tendency to place the Mother of God at the center of the Pentecostal scene.

Examine, if you will, the illumination at the top of this essayFigure A.

Mary is, by far, the largest character. The Apostles crowd around her on both sides expectantly. Her hands are lifted in the orans position of prayer. She stands in a red mantle and a dark blue robe that matches the hue of the Holy Spirit alighting above her. Every one of the bird’s tongues of flame move through her nimbus to reach the Apostles, some of whom even raise their own hands as if to reach out and take hold of the mystical fire.

A similar placement and posture is written into the following icon:

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Figure D. Description from source: “This Armenian Gospel book was produced in 904 of the Armenian era (1455 CE) at the monastery of Gamałiēl in Xizan by the scribe Yohannēs Vardapet, son of Vardan and Dilšat, and was illuminated by the priest Xačʿatur.” (Source)

Mary is the central pillar of the icon. The Holy Spirit does not just descend, but rests upon her as He sends forth his tongues of flame. Here, too, their colors match. We can see that the Holy Spirit is customarily written in blue for this festal icon.

Blue is an interesting color, one with mystical associations. I won’t attempt a full symbolic analysis here, but it is worth contemplating the range of natural and supernatural meanings which Christianity has invested in this delicate shade. It suffices to say that blue is a sophianic color, calling to mind the wisdom and beauty of God (see the pertinent chapter in The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, by the great Russian theologian Father Pavel Florensky). The iconographic tradition is of great help in this subject as well; besides gold, blue is the only other color allowed for the background of icons in the Greek and Slavic canons.

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Figure E. An Armenian Pentecost icon without Mary, but with a blue dove of the Spirit. (Source)

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Figure F. Pentecost icon of unconfirmed but probably Armenian origin. Same blue Spirit, roughly the same placement of the Theotokos. (Source).

It is also perhaps worthy of note that in Figure D, Mary doesn’t just match the hue of the Spirit. The colors she wears also match the architecture of the Cenacle. She is one with the Cenacle; the Cenacle is hers, and hers alone. The Cenacle is the Church, the Cenacle is every tabernacle in the world, the Cenacle is Heaven, the Cenacle is the New Jerusalem, the Cenacle is the Throne of God, the Cenacle is the Eschaton, the Cenacle is the final consummation of sophianic being brought about by Christ’s gloriously triumphant Incarnation, sacrifice, and Resurrection.

And in all these mystical dimensions of the Cenacle, Our Lady is Queen.

Mary is the woman who bears the Holy Spirit, the living icon of the Church. When we look at Mary, we are to think of the Spirit. The Mother of God always points us to her son, but also to the Holy Spirit, and through both, to the Father. She is never apart from the Holy Spirit. They abide together, and the Cenacle is where her truly Eucharistic and sophianic state of being is manifested for the awe-struck view of the whole Church. She is the consummation of what is accomplished by the Trinity in the Cenacle, the woman who fully cooperates in the salvation of the world, the Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix of All Graces. Indeed, do we not read the latter title in the first illumination above? Do we not see it in the slim orange lines of fire that move through her halo to the Apostles below? They only receive the Spirit as it passes through Mary.

Mary does nothing of her own effort. God does all in her, and she freely agrees to accept and work for God’s will. St. Paul can speak of “those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh” (Col. 1:24 DRA). Not so with Mary. In her, the cross’s victory is complete. In her, it has become the Tree of Life, “so that the birds of the air,” such as the blue bird of the icons, “come and lodge in the branches thereof” (Matt. 13:32 KJV).

On this feast day, let us remember the manifold graces that Our Lady showers upon us from her throne in the eternal Cenacle. Let us also take heart that, with so powerful an advocate at the heart of the Church, no controversies or troubles can ever overwhelm the Barque of Peter. Finally, let us pray to Our Lady of the Cenacle for the Benedictines of Silverstream on this, their patronal feast.