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.
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 evangelization—but 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.
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.
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)
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).
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.