As any Catholic can tell you, the month of May is traditionally dedicated to Mary, the Mother of God. It’s therefore a great month to visit Rome and check out the large number of paintings of the Madonna and Child in the city’s churches, many of which have fascinating histories behind them.
This image is a great example. Officially its name is Maria, Auxilium Christianorum (Mary, Help of Christians). The artist who painted it in the early 1800’s is not known; but in contrast, it was blessed by someone who was very well known indeed: Pope Pius VII personally blessed this painting in 1817 and chose its name.
Pius VII had good reason to invoke the Virgin Mary under this title. It was he who attempted (unsuccessfully) to deal reasonably with Napoleon Bonaparte, who hadn’t demonstrated much willingness to cooperate with the Church. Napoleon invaded Rome back in 1796, at which time the previous Pope, Pius VI, was unceremoniously taken prisoner and dragged away to France, where he died in 1799.
Elected the following year, Pius VII tried what today might be termed “peaceful coexistence.” In 1801 he signed a Concordat with Napoleon, to protect the religious freedom of French Catholics. But eight years later, Napoleon once again invaded Rome–and in a repeat performance, he dragged away Pope Pius VII to France as his prisoner.
But there was a different ending to the story this time. Napoleon was finally defeated in 1814, and taken prisoner himself–and then Pius VII was finally able to return to Rome.
So it made a lot of sense that a grateful Holy Father would invoke the Blessed Mother as “Help of Christians”! She was undoubtedly his mainstay during his five years in French captivity, when he was helpless in the hands of enemies of the Church. But Pius VII’s patient endurance of his long trial must have contributed to his sanctification: in 2007 the process of his canonization as a saint was formally begun.
Suddenly this Marian image becomes a bit more interesting, doesn’t it? Yet without a knowledgeable guide, visitors to the church containing this Madonna don’t have the foggiest notion as to its historical context. There are no signs, explaining the story behind it, and so in the eyes of most pilgrims and tourists, it’s just another painting. Wouldn’t you rather visit Rome with us, to get the full story behind the sights you’re looking at?