On this Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, I am very pleased to make available a wonderful educational resource about the wayside shrines dedicated to Our Lady found all over the historic center of Rome. These images are fondly referred to as Madonnelle, or “Little Madonnas”. Some 500-600 of them are still to be seen on the streets of Rome.
I have posted about these shrines before: here, here, here, and here. With this present post I hope to provide a fuller picture of the significance of these beautiful shrines, which are found on so many corners and sides of buildings in the city, and have adorned and sanctified the city for many centuries. Up until the mid-19th century or so, the only street lights were the votive lamps that burned before these images day and night: the light shining in Rome’s nighttime darkness was reflected off images of the Mother of God. Moreover, before house numbers and even street names became standardized, these wayside shrines served as points-of-reference for navigating the city.
In November of 1995, the now-defunct monthly 30 Days published an article called “The Faith in the Streets”, which was precisely on the subject of these devotional shrines. It can be downloaded by clicking on the following icon (file shared with permission of publisher):
Perhaps the most impressive detail from the history of these shrines, presented by the above article, concerns the many thoroughly-documented miracles associated with them. From the article:
Towards the end of the 18th century, at a time of serious political and social crisis when it seemed inevitable that Rome would be invaded by French troops, something altogether untoward happened in the city, and it involved the Little Madonnas. On the morning of July 9, 1796 a poor man passing through the Trevi quarter close to Piazza Santissimi Apostoli, where on the wall was fixed a venerated image of Our Lady known as the Madonna dell’Archetto, saw the eyes of the image move again and again. Not believing what he had seen – “l reckoned I was deceiving myself and that these eyes of mine were seeing too much” – he was about to continue on his way when news came that the image of Our Lady of the Rosary in Via Arco della Ciambella, that of Our Lady of Sorrows in the nearby Vicolo delle Bollette and the one of Divina Provvidenza [Divine Providence] in Via delle Botteghe Oscure – where they still stand today – had all begun moving their eyes at the same time.
Read the rest in the article, by downloading it via the icon above!
In October, I was fortunate to be able to celebrate Mass in the chapel where one of these miraculous images is venerated. (Post here about that.)
The visitor to Rome today may think that these images are simply relics of a bygone era when devotion to Our Lady was extremely high, perhaps even superstitious. But that assumption – besides being wrong – may also be a bit patronizing. Are we in any less need today of the guidance and protection of the Mother of God? Don’t we still need her to light our way? Google Maps and electricity may have rendered these images obsolete from the standpoints of navigation and illumination – but only in the material sense. Our spiritual need remains, and these images remain to remind us of it.
I hope that this article will serve as an aid to your own Marian devotion. Certainly for when you might come to Rome on pilgrimage: as you pass by these images, you can not only appreciate their beauty and raise your mind to Our Lady, seeking her intercession; you can also think about the countless people who, full of faith and confidence in Mary’s powerful intercession, placed these images for public veneration, honored them, prayed before them, and indeed, witnessed the miracles that they produced.
But I think it can also be an aid to your Marian devotion from afar. Love is contagious. Saints and sinners in ages past, here in Rome, had such a great love for the Mother of God so as to honor images of her publicly and, to a certain extent, order their lives around them; that love remains as so many monuments that we can appreciate today, even if only in words and pictures. That love can also be translated, so to speak: how can I pay greater honor to the Blessed Mother in my own life? How might I lead others to her love and care as well?
As we begin a new calendar year we do so under the sign of the Mother of God, whose feast we celebrate today. May she guide us through the pathways of life and illuminate the way before us: that narrow, often winding, and difficult way that leads to Christ. Do read the article that is linked above, and do seek out other ways to grow in knowledge and love of the Blessed Virgin Mary throughout the year to come.