The incredible story of the “Mater Ecclesiae” mosaic in Saint Peter’s Square
Did you know that before the assassination attempt on Saint John Paul II, an image of Mary didn’t exist in the square?
Jesus Christ, John the Baptist and the Apostles crown the façade, on the colonnades 140 saints solemnly watch over the pilgrims, the statues of Saints Peter and Paul stand proudly, papal coats of arms alternate with the faces of the wind rose blowing gently through the square… though it may seem incredible, among the hundreds of images represented in the grand baroque complex that is Saint Peter’s square, there was no trace of Mary up until 1981.
The year is 1940, and Poland has been occupied by the Nazis. As a young Karol Józef Wojtyła is working as a labourer, he feels his vocation being born within him, also thanks to his reading of the book by Saint Louis de Montfort about devotion to Mary. Wojtyla was deeply moved by Montfort’s words regarding the invitation to devote oneself completely to Mary, and from the text he extrapolated the phrase “Totus tuus” - “I belong to you”, making it his personal motto – and motto on his coat of arms – when he was nominated bishop in 1958.
During Holy week in 1980, the Pope received the university students of Opus Dei in audience and one of them, Julio Nieto, pointed out with a certain surprise, the striking absence of Mary in the square. The Holy Father replied with his usual enthusiasm: “We have to put the finishing touch on the square!”
In order to fulfil the Pope’s wishes, Monsignor Alvaro Del Portillo and the architect Javier Cotelo identified a location on the exterior of the baroque complex, perfect and by now untouchable in its entirety: a window of the Palazzo Apostolitico to re-use – by walling it up – to host the effigy. The Pope received the project, appreciated it, but nothing was done to realise it.
The assassination attempt on John Paul and the Virgin Mary
Just after 5 p.m., on the 13th of May 1981, Our Lady of Fátima in the liturgical calendar, Pope John Paul was in his Popemobile in the square for a general audience, when he was hit by two close range bullets that perforated his colon and intestines. Some claim that there were three bullets, but up until today the Turkish terrorist Ali Ağca has never revealed who ordered the attack, though the most credited theory is that of Soviet involvement.
The Pope was taken to the Policlinico Gemelli hospital where he underwent a 5-hour operation, receiving the Annointing of the Sick, causing a universal feeling of desperation for his survival.
At Christmas 1983, the Pope met with his attacker in prison, forgiving him.
Wojtyla always claimed he had been subject to a miracle, as Mary had “deviated the killing bullet”, the bullet that was then offered to the Sanctuary of Fatima and set in the crown of the Virgin.
To remember this extraordinary event, the idea of inserting an image of Mary in the square was reconsidered: the Opus Dei project was recovered and the Pope wanted the icon of the Mother of the Church, to protect the faithful in ever more difficult times.
It was created by the Vatican Studio of Mosaic, affixed on the 7th of December 1981 and blessed the next day (Immaculate Conception).
It is more than two and a half metres tall in order to be visible from the square. Beneath Mary the papal coat of arms and motto Totus tuus can be seen, while under the frame the bronze letters Mater Ecclesiae – Mother of the Church
It is a reproduction of the “Madonna della Colonna” a 15th century wall painting that decorated the ancient Constantinian basilica and, thanks to its ‘miraculous’ fame, was saved from destruction and relocated in the modern basilica.
The fresco, restored under the reign of Pope Paul IV was named “Madre della Chiesa” – “Mother of the Church” (Mater Ecclesiae) in 1964.
In 2006 Benedict XVI placed a visible memorial on the pavement in the square where the Pope was hit, with the date of the attack in Roman numerals.