What do St. Luke, the Archangel Michael, plague and COVID-19 have in common?
A painting of the Blessed Virgin and her child, known as Salus Populi Romani. The Latin title means “Health of the People of Rome.”
This spring, on March 27, as the world reeled with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pope Francis offered a special Urbi et Orbi (“to the city and the world”) prayer and blessing. On that rainy Friday, the pope stood in an empty Vatican Square, flanked by an ancient crucifix and a Marian painting. He prayed, “From this colonnade that embraces Rome and the whole world, may God’s blessing come down upon you as a consoling embrace. Lord, may you bless the world, give health to our bodies and comfort our hearts.”
The San Marcello crucifix that was in the square that day dates to the 16th century and was an object of blessings during the “Great Plague” that struck Rome in 1522. In August 1522, the crucifix was carried through the streets of Rome for 16 days, ending its journey at St. Peter’s Basilica. The plague ended shortly afterwards.
Much older than that crucifix is the icon of Mary that normally hangs in the Pauline Chapel (Capella Paolini) at St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome. The chapel is also called “the Borghesse Chapel”or “the Lady Chapel.” The image of Mary holding the child Jesus is five feet high by three and a quarter feet wide and painted on a cedar slab. While carbon dating has determined the icon to be about 1,000 years old, sacred tradition holds that the image was painted by St. Luke the Evangelist in the first century. It is said that the Gospel writer visited the Blessed Mother after she went to live in the home of St. John. Mary had taken with her a table made by her son in the workshop of St. Joseph and the icon was painted on this table.
St. Helen found icon
When St. Helen, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, visited the Holy Land seeking sites and relics related to the life of Christ in the fourth century, she is said to have found this icon. It was sent to Constantinople, which was then the capital of the Roman empire. It was placed in a chapel there.
How it came to Rome is unclear, but Constantinople suffered an outbreak of bubonic plague in 541-542. Since the empire was ruled by Justinian (527-565) at the time, it was called “the Plague of Justinian.” The illness actually started in Egypt and spread to the ports of the Mediterranean for 50 years, killing tens of millions of people.
When a new pope was elected in January of 590, the city of Rome was in the midst of this plague. Gregory I (later known as “Gregory the Great”) ordered that the image of Mary, known today as Salus Populi Romani, be carried through the streets. This happened during April and the Easter season. It is said that, as the procession drew near the Vatican area, angelic voices were heard singing the Regina Coeli (a Resurrection antiphon to Mary) over what was then called “Hadrian’s Mausoleum.” Gregory saw a vision of the Archangel Michael sheathing his sword over the mausoleum. The pope took this as a sign of mercy and, indeed, that wave of the plague ended soon after.
Hadrian’s Mausoleum, the tomb of the Emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117-138) had been a military fortress in the fifth century. After this miracle, it was renamed Castel Sant’Angelo in honor of the angels heard singing during that procession in 590.
The icon of Mary and Jesus was used for another plague, this one in 1837. Another Pope Gregory (the 16th this time) prayed before the image during a cholera outbreak that year.
In its chapel, locted near the front of the basilica, the image of Mary and her child is not far from the relic said to contain boards from the manger of Christ. The Pauline Chapel was built by Pope Paul V (1605-1621), who was a member of the Borghesse family.
In 2017, the Marian icon underwent a restoration, overseen by the Vatican Museums. Work included repairing damage from jewels being removed from the image in the past, filling in insect holes, removing corroded lacquer and layers of varnish and restoring the gold halos and Mary’s blue mantle. The back was also strengthened and the icon was rehung in its shrine on Jan. 28, 2018, the anniversary of its placement in the chapel by Pope Pius V in 1613.
The icon of Salus Populi Romani is a favorite of Pope Francis. It is reported by the Vatican that he always visits the icon on Marian feast days and before most trips he takes outside of Italy.
Sources: vaticanews.va; Marian Library at udayton.edu; artmagazine.com; christianiconography.info; catholicworldreport.com;ncregister.com; americanmagazine.org; theartnewspaper.com; themarianroom.com; and Catholic News Service.