The Madonnelle in Rome (part III)
This is the third part of Professor Alberto Manodori Sagredo’s special on Rome’s “Madonnelle”.
Vicolo di Febo
This particular aedicule showcases a unique iconography. The painting shows a young Jesus between the Holy Mary and his foster father, Saint Joseph: a portrait of the Holy Family.
The image, behind protective glass, is contained in a beautiful oval decorated by a fluttering ribbon that seems to hold it in place on the wall, and is surmounted by a pagoda-style canopy with a fringe.
The Holy Family is an important presence throughout the Christian and Catholic tradition and practice, and a range of minor and major artists have represented it over the centuries. Its image, however, gained increasing popularity during the 19th century – with the end of the Papal States, the Marian apparitions in Lourdes, and a number of congregations for men and women founded in its name. Hence it is only recently that representations of the Holy Family started to appear along the streets, next to the older Madonnelle, as a vivid reminder of the feelings that keep families together.
This aedicule in Vicolo del Febo, on the corner with Via dei Coronari, was painted in the 19th century. In 1895, Pope Leo XIII instituted the feast of the Holy Family on the third Sunday after the Epiphany. In 1921 Pope Benedict XV moved it to the Sunday within the Octave of the Epiphany, then John XXIII moved it again to the first Sunday after the Epiphany; today it is celebrated on the Sunday after Christmas, or on December 30 if Christmas is on a Sunday.
Via dei Coronari
The aedicule in Via dei Coronari, at number 126, seems small and humble, under the protection of the lamp in front of it. It holds an 18th-century painting of the Madonna, with her head tilted right and her eyes half-closed in pained participation in human miseries. A beautiful pearl necklace – the gift of a long time gone worshipper – brings out her majestic aura.
Many images of the Madonna have been decorated with jewelry, often gold or coral: they were a symbol of people’s devotion for the Virgin Mary, a way to ask her for a grace, or votive offerings in fulfillment of a vow. Bejeweled Madonnelle are a visible sign of Rome’s devotion and piety, scattered in the city’s streets and squares…
At the corners of Lancellotti Palace – built on the homonymous square in the 17th century, by the noble Lancellotti family – there are two stucco aediculae by Baroque artists. In each one, voluminous clouds radiate rays of divine light, with angels flying above. Two angels, in particular, hold the ribbons that seem to secure these works of religious art to the wall, as if they were bringing the framed icons down from the heavens, in a chorus of cherubs and light.
After all, angels have always been a part of Christian devotion, invoked in prayers and remembered in many first and last names in Italy.
In one of the aediculae, the Madonna is portrayed in her sorrow, as she holds her hands together in prayer and looks to the sky.
In the other, there is a painting of the Holy Face of Jesus by German artist Anton Raphael Mengs (Aussig 1728 – Rome 1779), who Winckelmann considered “the best artist of his time”. Having a neoclassic background, Mengs was able to give life to works that seemed to inherit all the qualities of ancient classic art. He was also the author of a popular essay, titled “Reflections on beauty and taste in painting”. A wonderful portrait he painted of Pope Clement XIII is showcased today in the National Art Gallery of Bologna.
Christ’s face, in the oval carried by the angel, is clearly inspired by the Manoppello Image: it has its same intense gaze, although shapes and tones have been softened; part of the chest is covered, as a reminder of the wound inflicted by the lance on the cross.
Thus the Saviour in one aedicule and the Madonna in the other, not far apart, can have their silent dialog. The Holy Virgin prays to cope with the pain of her son’s Passion, while Christ maintains a serene expression, beaming with rays of light that symbolize the Holy Trinity.