Wednesday, July 30, 2008


Lexi Brewer
Honors in Rome - Summer 2008

A madonnella in the Campo de Fiori

You don’t have to walk very far in Rome to stumble upon the face of the Madonna gazing down at you. These publicly produced and funded street shrines, referred to by Romans as madonnelle, decorate many street corners in all parts of the city, and vary in quality from a simple framed print to dazzling mosaics. These street shrines have a unique history and function, as many of them are credited with performing miracles. Initially regarded as something of a threat, the Church later changed its relationship with Rome’s miraculous madonnelle to ensure the continuance of its previous power and authority. In this paper, I will track the origins and functions of madonnelle, and also the Church’s changing relationship with the public shrines. While initially ignored by the Church, the shrines represent a people’s movement that the Church was forced to adopt in order to retain power.

While Rome’s numerous madonnelle played a large part in everyday public Catholicism from the 12th century onward, they are surprisingly pagan in origins. The tradition of public devotional imagery stems from the ancient Roman tradition of compita, which translates directly as “crossroads.” Each compita in Rome contained a lare, which was a painting or statue of a domestic deity associated with the spirits of the deceased. These early street shrines came to serve an important civil function, as they not only defined the neighborhoods surrounding the compita, but also became public gathering sites for events such as public auctions. With their increased prominence, the deities that stood in the compitas started to be seen as protectors of the community. As a result, these compita with their lares soon became sanctuaries to the residents of these areas. Roman lares share many of the same characteristics of the madonnelle. Both are situated high up on buildings, and are intended to be in full view. Both were pieces of art that were designed specifically for the public domain. Both also contained sacred images that were revered by the public. And in both traditions, we will see how this connection to the public was repossessed to assert the power of a greater institution.

Lares took on a slightly different meaning in the Augustan era, when Augustus replaced each neighborhood’s lare with one of his own lineage. The new community focal points were daily reminders of Augustus’s power, and validated his bourgeoning image as a god. As such, they functioned as a piece of propaganda to ensure the trust of the people. Because the deities associated with the lares were believed to watch over and protect the community, Augustus then absorbed the significance of the previous shrines into his persona, and assumed the role, through lares, of protector of the people. Augustus recognized the power that could be gained in exploiting existing public images, images that the people would be accustomed to. In this way, Augustus used extant public images to validate his rule in a way very similar to what the Church will adopt later.

Sometime during the 12th century, public worship by the Catholics of Rome was no longer required to be as clandestine, and the tradition of sacred public imagery that started in the lares morphed into public street shrines to the Madonna. These shrines, which came to be known as madonelle, or “Little Madonnas,” had some fairly uniform characteristics. One such characteristic that influenced the madonnelle’s success as a public icon is the relationship the Madonna establishes with the viewer. Rather than gazing adoringly down at the Christ Child, the Madonna of Roman street shrines directs all her motherly love and compassion outwards through her gaze to the viewer. This establishes a personal connection between the Madonna and her devotee, and in the 12th century, reflected a change in the public’s relationship with the Madonna. Indeed, the 12th century was a time during the evolution of the Catholic Church that methods of devotion began to be increasingly “of the people.” Around the same time as madonnelle started to appear in Rome, the use of the rosary started to become widespread, as well as the recitation of the “Angelus” prayer, which was a chanting of “Ave Maria” three times. Like the madonnelle, these forms of worship were directed towards the Virgin Mary, in which the Madonna is the figurehead of the people’s Christianity. And in another parallel with the madonnelle, these forms of worship were initially rejected by the Church, but eventually were enveloped within the frame of the Church itself.

Most street shrines to the Madonna found in Rome date from the 17th through the 19th centuries, though it is believed that some street shrines to the Madonna existed in medieval times. This is hard to prove however, and indicates the difficulties involved in studying these street shrines. Often paintings are in too poor a shape to date stylistically, and exterior clues, such as their placement, the frame surrounding them, or even the public legends surrounding the madonnella are unreliable indicators. A good example of this is found in the madonella situated in the Piazza del Biscione near the Campo de Fiori. This madonnella has not only been repainted, it has also been reframed and re-situated. Unfortunately, this is common of many madonelle. As a result, it is hard to know for sure when the shrines that exist would have been constructed. The uncertainty of their creation has important implications when attempting to examine the relationship of the institution of the Church with public street shrines, as significant historical events around a particular madonnella’s creation are an important tool in discovering how they were used to gain power.

When in 1853 a researcher, Alessandro Rufini, did a survey of the number of street shrines in Rome, he counted a whopping 2,739 separate shrines, the vast majority of which were devoted to the Virgin Mary. These madonnelle would have been a part of everyday life in Rome, even for the poorest citizens-- they would pass by them on their way to work, when returning home each day, and when walking around virtually anywhere in the city. Like the lares before them, street shrines probably took on an added significance to Romans, and were most likely places of private worship, even before they started performing miracles en mass. Small images of the Madonna then assumed the role as protector of communities that was once held by the lares. This image was bolstered by the fact that in 17th century Rome, the only public source of light once the sun went down was from the small lanterns placed beside the madonnelle. One can imagine the effect this might have on, say, a layman walking home in the dark, fearful of robbers, and suddenly stumbling upon the glowing visage of the Virgin. I was unable to find any records from this time period showing that the Church either commissioned or was opposed to street shrines, so it seems that the Church had no stance, or even little awareness of these early madonnelle. A 1480 bull by Sixtus IV decreed that streets in Rome should be widened, and that any porticos that would impede this be moved. Many of the porticos that were demolished would have held madonnelle, and the inset street shrines would have either been destroyed or removed. That the madonnelle were destroyed was not the intention of the bull; they were just not important enough to be preserved. The Church seemed to largely ignore street shrines—that is, until the “little Madonnas” started performing miracles.

A reputedly miraculous madonnella near the Piazza Pigna

Most miraculous madonnelle performed their miracles during the 16th and 17th centuries, and this was a significant period in the history of the Church. The 16th century was a time of flux for both Rome and the Catholic Church. The Avignon Papacy, the rise of the Reformation, as well as a series of plagues and floods within Rome itself shook the faith of the people. The Church was losing power, Rome had for all intents and purposes fallen, and the people were becoming desperate. And within this setting of chaos and darkness, the people began to find a way of fulfilling their need of a savior on the streets. One of the first recorded miracles performed by an image of the Madonna in the public domain was performed in 1577, by a madonnella known now as the “Madonna of the Lantern.” This was located on (significantly, not in) a church on the Tiber Island, and performed its miracle when, during a flood, the lamp illuminating the Madonna continued to burn underwater.

The same miracles and prodigies performed by Rome’s madonnelle have distinct themes that repeat themselves over and over. Two examples of themes are that of the Vengeful Madonna and the Weeping Madonna. Interestingly, the nature of miracles performed by the madonnelle tends to reflect the historical or social crises of the time. For example, in one specific instance of a vengeful Madonna, an imperial soldier disfigures an image of the Virgin which cries, and the soldier is subsequently strangled by his colleagues. This may represent the sentiment of the times, in that the people put their faith in the madonnelle as a protector. By retaliating, the Madonna has shown that she can protect her people that are under threat. In another example of a vengeful Madonna, the Madonna della Misericordia, now in San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, was struck by a bowl thrown by an angry bowler. The arm that threw the bowl was instantly paralyzed. Compounding her act of miracle, when the man repented 40 days later, he regained the use of his arm. Again, the Madonna protects the community through her miracles, as she punishes a man for defacing her, a man whose wayward bowl could easily have injured some one else. At the same time, she remains accessible, granting the man forgiveness when he repents for his sins.

Bleeding Madonnas were also a common phenomenon, and most stories involve a wrathful gambler striking the image and causing it to bleed. A specific example of this type can be found in the Santa Maria della Pace. The Madonna della Pace originally hung in a portico in front of the Church, which was then Santa Andrea de Aquarenariis. In a typical madonnelle story, this image was struck by a wrathful gambler, and started to bleed. In an interesting twist, however, the image garnered the attention of Pope Sixtus IV, who was so impressed by it that he ordered the church rebuilt and renamed Santa Maria de Aquarenariis. This served a significant function in bolstering the power of the Church. By moving the madonnella inside, and by devoting a Church to it, the Pope gained property of the people’s worship, and at the same time, validated their worship and brought it within the confines of a Church.

A second miracle was credited to this madonnella, when it was decided that the image was responsible for bringing peace to Rome. In honor of this, the church was renamed again, this time as “Santa Maria della Pace.” The Church’s relationship with a particular madonnella, the Madonna della Pace, is a good method for understanding how the Church used public street shrines to cement their power. Before this discussion can be completely understood, however, it is good to have some introduction to another rising phenomenon that started outside the realm of the institutionalized Catholic Church—the Cult of the Virgin.

Early in the history of the Church the public was devoted to Marian imagery, and this caused some trouble with the religious powers. They had a hard time reconciling public sentiment with the doctrines of the Church, which reserved adoration for God and God only. To resolve this problem, they afforded Mary the right to reverence. However, it was clear that the public devotion to the Madonna went beyond reverence, which was equal among all the saints, and Mary was afforded a closer relationship with her followers when St. Thomas Aquinas introduced the concept of hyperdulia, the second of the three levels of reverence, directly under the reverence reserved for God. Throughout time, the relationship the Roman populous had with the Virgin outside the confines of the Church grew more and more intimate and personal. This worried the Church, as they feared that they were losing control, in a sense, of the public’s reverence. This is shown by the Church’s attempt to reign in the growing Cult of the Virgin as they instituted new doctrines designed to distance the Madonna from her followers. However, the relationship between the people and the Madonna continued to be intimate, and some of the Church’s worst fears began to be realized when reports came of public images performing miracles. Unable to halt the changing relationship of the Virgin and her devotees, the Church needed to devise some new way of harnessing this sentiment, and the miraculous madonelle proved to be the perfect vehicle.

Chiesa Santa Maria della Pace
(picture from

As seen in the example of the Madonna della Pace, not only were significant miraculous madonnelle removed from their original settings and placed inside a church, but the Church itself was changed to most effectively use the potency of her miracles. Like Augustus, the Church used an existing public sentiment to play into their power as an institution, and by bringing the miraculous Madonna into the fold, they strongly associated themselves with the propagation of miracles. The reason so few miraculous street shrines remain in situ is because, when removed and placed in a religious setting, they were useful tools for gaining power. In addition, when these miracles were brought into an ecclesiastical setting, the Church and the papacy could then dictate the means and method of their worship. As an example, many relocated madonnelle were shrouded for most of the year, and only uncloaked during holy days and large events. Whereas the people before had access to the intercessions of the Virgin on a daily basis, now her miracles were reserved for times mandated by the Church. In this way, the Church regained power over the methods of Marian worship, and to some extent the public opinion of the papacy. Before, the Madonna produced these miracles in the public realm. Later, within the confines of the Church, the miracles performed by an image become the property of the institution that holds them, and any further assistance the public receives from the image will not only be credited to the Madonna, but also credited to the Church as a whole.

While it is easy to interpret this power struggle between the Church and the public negatively, it can also be seen as faith spreading from the lower rungs of society upward. Instead of a Pope, or a Saint, or someone else in a position of power guiding the evolution of Catholicism, it was a movement spawned from the people and exploited by the Church. In a way, this was truest to the origins of Christianity. Though the Church struggled against it, it was forced to adopt the public’s miraculous images or risk losing their loyalty. In the phenomenon of the madonnelle, the Church was forced to use the public fervor surrounding the miraculous street shrines. In this manner, the Church gained power by taking a movement of the people and adopting it as their own, legitimizing their command over worship.


Abbey, Molly. Miraculous Public Imagery of the Virgin in Renaissance Rome (University of Wahsington Master's Thesis, 2004).