An Uptown Girl Meets a Downtown Archangel: The Story of Mary, Michael, and the Plague of 590

May 18, 2016

Many Roman landmarks have hidden connections to others, waiting to be discovered and appreciated by those who know where to look.  Before Piazza del Popolo’s obelisk welcomed pilgrims from the north making their first entry into Rome, it welcomed spectators to the games at the Circus Maximus.  The man who gave us the beauty of Piazza Navona, Pope Innocent X Pamphili, seems to have been the model for Satan in a Guido Reni painting across town in the church of Santa Maria della Concezione.  Augustus famously dedicated altars to Peace in the Campus Martius and to his adopted father Julius Caesar in the Forum, but legend has it that he also dedicated one to Christ on the Capitoline, which today lies within the church of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli (more on that in a blog post to come!).  Today, we’ll explore a connection between two of Rome’s historically most visible and visited sites: Castel Sant’Angelo and Santa Maria Maggiore.  

Of these two, the former was once a papal fortress and the tallest structure in Rome, while the latter remains to this day a papal basilica and the highest point in the city.  (Its medieval bell tower attains that distinction with help from the Esquiline Hill.)  Both are named for saints: Mary, the Mother of God, and Michael the Archangel, and though Michael is revered by Christians as a guardian of the Church and patron of police and soldiers, the castle is not named for him for this generic reason alone.  The source is rather the story of the terrible plague that gripped Rome in 590, and the intervention of Pope St. Gregory the Great to bring it to an end.  

The Legenda Aurea, a thirteenth-century collection of Christian stories, sets the stage thus:

Sed quia Romam adhuc praedicta pestis vastabat, more solito processionem cum litaniis per civitatis circuitum quodam tempore paschali ordinavit, in qua imaginem beatae Mariae semper virginis...ante processionem reverenter portari fecit.1

The effect is immediate, as the icon literally “clears the air” and drives out the plague wherever it goes:

ecce tota aeris infectio et turbulentia imagini cedebat, ac si ipsam imaginem fugeret et ejus praesentiam ferre non posset, sicque post imaginem mira serenitas et aeris puritas remanebat.2

Angelic voices are heard singing the praises of Mary and Christ around the image, and finally, as the procession reaches Castel Sant’Angelo, Pope Gregory has a vision:  

Tunc beatus Gregorius vidit supra castrum Crescentii angelum domini, qui gladium cruentatum detergens in vaginam remittebat, intellexitque Gregorius, quod pestis illa cessasset, et sic factum est. Unde et castrum illud castrum angeli deinceps vocatum est.3

What is this image, through which Rome was spared from the plague?  The Legenda Aurea identifies it as the image “quae adhuc, ut ajunt, est Romae in ecclesia, quae dicitur Sancta Maria Major.”4  Indeed, the same icon still remains there even today in the basilica’s Pauline Chapel.  Framed by rich pillars of red agate stone and a wall of blue lapis lazuli (the two colors Mary usually wears in art), born up by a throng of golden angels, and flanked by sculptures of two popes, one kneeling in prayer before the icon and the other blessing the pilgrim faithful gathered before it, it rest high above eye level as the revered centerpiece of perhaps the most lavish and glorious space in the basilica.

The history of the icon itself remains a matter of dispute.  The Legenda Aurea describes it as the image “quam Lucas arte medicus et pictor egregius formasse dicitur et eidem virgini simillima per omnia perhibetur.”5  This belief follows a tradition concerning St. Luke, the Gospel writer who records more than the other three evangelists combined about Mary’s life, especially the Annunciation, her pregnancy, and Christ’s birth, infancy, and childhood. Because of these details in his Gospel, it has sometimes been speculated that he actually knew the Holy Family during those early years and in that time painted the original “Madonna and child” with live models, as the template for centuries of later artists depicting that scene.6

Rejecting this rather fanciful tradition, however, has not led to any decisive agreement on an alternative story.  Different studies have dated the icon to various periods between the fifth and thirteenth century.  According to some analyses, then, it would have been a fairly old and venerable icon already by the time of Gregory the Great, while others put its origins long after the days of the pope and the 590 plague.  The problem of correctly dating the icon is complicated by centuries of overpainting, which make the appearance of the original difficult to discover, and which may help explain conclusions that it did not exist until well after Pope St. Gregory is supposed to have processed with it through the streets of Rome.  

Rather than any definite theories of the icon’s age, what we can speak of is the painting’s composition.  Mary is the central, dominating figure of the scene, a royal personage mantled in blue trimmed with gold, and holding a kind of handkerchief that, from ancient, pre-Christian times, symbolized imperial (previously consular) authority.  This is appropriate to the story of the Legenda Aurea, since the angels heard singing around the icon in procession hail its subject as “Regina Coeli,” or Queen of Heaven.  While she looks out towards the viewer, Christ sits on her lap and follows her gaze with his hand outstretched in the manner of blessing.  He himself, however, looks not outward but upward, to the face of his mother.  This combination of postures emphasizes Mary’s role as a mediatrix of God’s grace, exemplified above all by her role in the Incarnation as Mother of God, but also in a particular way by her intervention to banish the plague from Rome in 590.

In a way, then, Castel Sant’Angelo owes its name, as well as its grand statue of St. Michael at its pinnacle, to this venerable icon on the Esquiline Hill.  The name of the icon itself?  “Salus Populi Romani,” meaning either the bodily health, physical security, or spiritual salvation of the people of Rome...or all three!  Indeed, as the mind’s eye shifts back and forth to contemplate one and then the other, the pile and the painting, one might be led to wonder where the best protection over the city lies.  The walls and towers of Castel Sant’Angelo, however imposing, have failed often enough to defend Rome: they were powerless to ward off the terrible sack of 1527 and the invasion of 1871, for example.  But this painting of a mother with her baby on her lap has stopped a plague in its tracks.  Where, then, is the better safeguard, the true salus?


1 "But because the aforementioned plague was still devastating Rome, [Pope Gregory] ordered a procession with litanies, as customary, around the city during the Easter season, in which he had an image of the Blessed Mary Ever Virgin carried reverently before the procession."

"Lo, all of the languor and malaise in the air yielded to the image, as if it were fleeing the image itself and could not bear its presence, and thus after the image, an amazing peacefulness and purity of air remained."

3 "Then blessed Gregory say above the fortress of Crescenzio an angel of the Lord, who was cleaning his bloody sword and returning it to its sheath, and Gregory understood that the plague would now cease, and thus it happened.  From this, that fortress was thereafter called the fortress of the angel." 

4 "...which is still, they say, in Rome in the church called St. Mary Major."

"...which Luke, physician by trade and excellent painter, is said to have formed, and which is held to be the best likeness of all of the Virgin herself."

That legend led St. Luke to become known as a patron saint of painters, and the subject of St. Luke painting the Virgin child became itself a very popular scene among Renaissance painters!



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