Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception so it seems as good a time as any to talk about the Madonnelle. But first, a bit about today. December 8 celebrates the conception of the Virgin Mary, which apparently happened the normal way but was free from original sin. It shouldn’t be confused — as it often is — with the Virgin Birth, which refers to the nativity of Jesus. The Feast of the Immaculate Conception was first celebrated in the 5th Century in Syria. It is celebrated in Catholic countries and countries where Mary is the principal patroness, like Brazil, Korea, Spain, the Philippines, Italy obviously and (a surprise to me) the USA.
So, the Madonnelle. These are religious shrines that hang on the walls of old buildings (mostly on street corners) all over Rome. The Madonnelle (which means ‘little Madonnas’ because most of the shrines feature Mary) that are still around today mainly date from the 17th to the 19th Centuries. Only a few of the really old ones (medieval to Renaissance eras) have survived. The images are done in mosaic, carved or painted and usually involve a very fancy frame. Since the shrines usually featured a lantern of some kind, they also served the practical purpose of shedding some light on the poorly lit Roman streets. Local inhabitants — rich and poor — installed and worshiped at the shrines, which must have been inconvenient and even dangerous since they’d basically have to do their worshipping in the middle of the street.
Danger or no, street shrines have a long and noble history, dating back to ye olde Roman times when little statues of guardian spirits, known as ‘lares’ were placed at the crossroads to protect passers-by. When Augustus came along, he replaced all the lares with statues of himself. Egomaniac. After Constantine converted Rome to Christianity, the pagan shrines were all converted to Madonnelle.
It wasn’t long before the Madonnelle started performing miracles, mostly of the bleeding, weeping and healing variety. Interestingly, the miracles tended to coincide with periods when the Church was trying to strengthen or legitimize its power, e.g. the Great Schism, the reformation. The most famous miracle happened in July 1796 when, over a period of three weeks, a whole load of Madonnelle at different spots in Rome began to move their eyes around. This was at the time that the French Army was menacing the Papal State. There was a religious enquiry but it was abandoned when Napoleon occupied Rome two years later.
There used to be thousands of these things hanging around but now it’s down to about 500, according to the last ‘census,’ which was done in 2004. I’ve been taking pictures of them for the past few years. I probably have about 100 by now. Here are a few of them.