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.

 

Newman on the Sacred Heart

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The Twelve Promises of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. (Source).

I reproduce below the fine meditation on the Sacred Heart penned by Cardinal Newman. It is number XVI of his Meditations and Devotions, taken here from the Newman Reader.

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Sacred Temple of God. (Source).

O SACRED Heart of Jesus, I adore Thee in the oneness of the Personality of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Whatever belongs to the Person of Jesus, belongs therefore to God, and is to be worshipped with that one and the same worship which we pay to Jesus. He did not take on Him His human nature, as something distinct and separate from Himself, but as simply, absolutely, eternally His, so as to be included by us in the very thought of Him. I worship Thee, O Heart of Jesus, as being Jesus Himself, as being that Eternal Word in human nature which He took wholly and lives in wholly, and therefore in Thee. Thou art the Heart of the Most High made man. In worshipping Thee, I worship my Incarnate God, Emmanuel. I worship Thee, as bearing a part in that Passion which is my life, for Thou didst burst and break, through agony, in the garden of Gethsemani, and Thy precious contents trickled out, through the veins and pores of the skin, upon the earth. And again, Thou hadst been drained all but dry upon the Cross; and then, after death, Thou wast pierced by the lance, and gavest out the small remains of that inestimable treasure, which is our redemption.

 

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Burning Furnace of Charity. (Source).

My God, my Saviour, I adore Thy Sacred Heart, for that heart is the seat and source of all Thy tenderest human affections for us sinners. It is the instrument and organ of Thy love. It did beat for us. It yearned over us. It ached for us, and for our salvation. It was on fire through zeal, that the glory of God might be manifested in and by us. It is the channel through which has come to us all Thy overflowing human affection, all Thy Divine Charity towards us. All Thy incomprehensible compassion for us, as God and Man, as our Creator and our Redeemer and Judge, has come to us, and comes, in one inseparably mingled stream, through that Sacred Heart. O most Sacred symbol and Sacrament of Love, divine and human, in its fulness, Thou didst save me by Thy divine strength, and Thy human affection, and then at length by that wonder-working blood, wherewith Thou didst overflow.

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Tabernacle of the Most High. (Source).

O most Sacred, most loving Heart of Jesus, Thou art concealed in the Holy Eucharist, and Thou beatest for us still. Now as then Thou savest, Desiderio desideravi—”With desire I have desired.” I worship Thee then with all my best love and awe, with my fervent affection, with my most subdued, most resolved will. O my God, when Thou dost condescend to suffer me to receive Thee, to eat and drink Thee, and Thou for a while takest up Thy abode within me, O make my heart beat with Thy Heart. Purify it of all that is earthly, all that is proud and sensual, all that is hard and cruel, of all perversity, of all disorder, of all deadness. So fill it with Thee, that neither the events of the day nor the circumstances of the time may have power to ruffle it, but that in Thy love and Thy fear it may have peace.

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“Sacred Heart of Jesus with St. Marcel and Blessed Juvenal Ancina” by Bartolomeo Dusi. (Source).

A Norbertine Poem for the Sacred Heart

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Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us. (Source).

I happened upon this wonderful poem by one Frater Simeon Charles Goodwin, O.Praem., a seminarian at St. Michael’s Abbey. It’s always a delight to find good rhyming verse with a tightly-wound meterand rich theology to boot! Throughout the text, we can detect hints of Chesterton and, in the very last couplet, the sensual, baroque Richard Crashaw. I offer it here for your enjoyment on this solemnity of the Sacred Heart.

The Sacred Heart

    by Simeon Charles Goodwin, O.Praem.

There is a heart that beat with love
When time could mark no beat.
It echoed with a triple-pulse
And surged in thunders sweet.

Too happy not to overflow
It laughed and all was made.
It sighed and angel hosts came forth
In myriad parade.

It sang the seas and skies to be,
Hummed forth the rolling hills.
It beamed out beast and bird in love,
A sweet and mighty will.

It breathed into the mire and muck,
Sweet nothings to the earth;
And clay was made creation’s crown,
Man made with God’s own worth.

And how that heart did pound with peace
When he and man would walk
In silent love in evening winds
Too full of love for talk.

Oh man was glad and God was glad
And all creation too,
But man in madness pierced God’s heart
And rent the world in two.

There is a secret hideaway
Where cosmoi come to cry,
With atrium no bigger than
The needle’s narrow eye.

And there the mighty waters wait
To burst on arid wastes.
Men need but kiss the lance-made lips
To learn how sweet blood tastes.

Four Years a Catholic

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Sacred Heart of Jesus with Saint Ignatius of Loyola and Saint Louis Gonzaga, by Jose de Paez, Mexico, c. 1770

Four years ago today, I was received into the Roman Catholic Church. It’s been quite a journey since. I have often stumbled, often tarried, often limped along the way. My early zeal has often shattered under the pressure of my own bad habits and the various little demons of life. My idealism has been shaken by failures – my own and those of others. My faith has been sorely tested by this pontificate.

But I would never go back. There have been so many blessings and graces given to me over the course of my sacramental life that to abandon ship would be nothing less than the crassest betrayal. I have grown in spite of myself. I must express my gratitude to all those friends, in Heaven and earth, who have helped me along the way. Through the caked and crusted carapace of sin, I can still feel the heart of my faith beating strong. I have hope.

And it is with that hope that I entrust the next year of my life as a Catholic to the most Sacred Heart of Jesus. I had earlier given my second year to Our Lady, the third year to the Holy Spirit, and the fourth to the Holy Name. Now, I think it best to give over all that I may encounter, all that I may do, and all that I may suffer to the Heart which bleeds for me. In doing this, I hope to draw nearer to the God who abides temporally in the Tabernacles of the world and eternally in the Tabernacle of unapproachable light.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Furnace of Charity, Tabernacle of the Most High, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, pray for me.

Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto, sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum.

Amen.