Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

zander1Pietro Zander, third from left, speaks with a reporter on May 6 at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven during an opening reception for a new exhibition of Marian art, "Full of Grace: Crowned Madonnas from the Vatican Basilica." Dr. Zander curated the exhibit and oversaw the restoration of the artwork, some of which dates to the 16th century. (Photo courtesy of Knights of Columbus)

NEW HAVEN – The Knights of Columbus is featuring a new exhibit of more than 90 paintings of crowned Madonnas from St. Peter’s Basilica that are being shown outside of the Vatican for the first time.

The exhibit, "Full of Grace: Crowned Madonnas from the Vatican Basilica," which opened in time for Mother’s Day and runs through Jan. 8, is a rare collection of miraculous images of the Blessed Mother with the Christ Child that reflect the devotion of the faithful to the Virgin Mary through the centuries.

The recently restored Marian artworks, which date back to the 17th and 18th centuries, were collected by the Vatican after it decided in 1636 to permit images to be crowned. The practice of crowning, which promotes universal veneration, recognizes the uniqueness of the image, devotion of the faithful and miracles attributed to the image.

There are 120 images in the basilica’s crowned Madonnas collection, including the restored images on display at the museum. However, some 1,300 images have been given the honor by the Vatican over the years, most of which have been sent out to parishes.

In addition to their traditional and historical significance, some of the pieces are "magnificent art," said Lawrence Sowinski, director of the museum. He explained that because some of the paintings are done by novices and others by noted artists, each painting is of a different style and quality.

According to Mr. Sowinski, several great works of the Virgin Mary, including the Pieta and Our Lady of Guadalupe, are approved "crowned" images, but are not typically shown with the crown to maintain their original integrity.

However, there are many other lesser known crowned Marian images around the world.

The exhibition is the brainchild of Pietro Zander, archaeologist in charge of the Vatican Necropolis for the Fabbrica di San Pietro, which maintains the basilica and its sacred art. Mr. Zander, who oversaw the restoration of the Marian images and the research of the miraculous images that began in 2003, was at the museum May 6th for a pre-opening reception.

He explained that the paintings have been stored in a remote area of the Vatican for hundreds of years. Because the Knights of Columbus collaborated with the Vatican on other projects, he sought the approval of Supreme Knight Carl Anderson to have the Knights underwrite the restoration and bring the collection to the public in its entirety for the first time.

"The Knights of Columbus is pleased and grateful for the opportunity to share these historic paintings with an American audience," said Mr. Anderson. "They are not only works of art, but stories of people’s faith and culture."

Mr. Zander said that as part of the icon-crowning process, local officials in parishes and dioceses were required to document the image’s longstanding history and strong devotion to it by the faithful as well as a miracle attributed to the image.

Once approval was granted of the statue or painting, a copy was painted, often by a local artist, who would then paint or affix a crown to it and send it to the basilica. In some cases, a three-day ceremony celebrating the honor would be held in the local town.

Some of the images in the gallery were made seven centuries after Christ, while others are from the 19th century. The oil paintings in the exhibit are from Italy, other parts of Europe and Latin America.

Among images on display are copies of Our Lady of the Rosary from Pompeii; the Madonna of Avvocata del Popolo (Advocate of the People) from Caserta, Italy, that dates back to 1520; Santa Maria di Porto Salvo (Saint Mary of the Safe Port), painted on wood and dating back to 1600; and the Madonna "of the Chain," commemorating freedom from the Turks.

The image of the Madonna Della Grazia (Our Lady of Grace) dates back to 1449. It is said that people were praying before the image when a dazzling light appeared and the people saw Mary with the baby Jesus. A devotion began that continues to this day.

The image of Our Lady of Czestochowa from Poland is included in the exhibit. Although the late Blessed John Paul II personally asked that the image be crowned, the official designation was delayed. Upon his impending death, those close to the Pontiff hurried to have the image approved. It was crowned three hours before his death in 2005.

In addition to the works on loan from St. Peter’s Basilica, the exhibition includes a bronze reproduction of Michelangelo’s Pieta, which is among the most famous of the crowned Madonnas. The original, carved from Carrara marble in 1498-99, is a masterpiece and ranks among the world’s most renowned works of Christian art.

The museum is located at 1 State St. and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission and parking are free. Information is available at (203) 865-0400 or