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Which is the most beautiful image of the Madonna?

Beautiful works of art make theological statements, manifesting to us profound truths about God

By on Wednesday, 14 March 2012

It is time perhaps to turn our thoughts upwards and think of the more transcendental aspects of our religion.

Years ago, as a youngster, I had a book called, I think, The Book of Lists, which as its title suggested, was a book that consisted entirely of lists. You can imagine it: the fifty states of the Union, the Kings and Queens of England, the last six people to be hanged, and so on. There might well be a market for a book of Catholic lists which could feature lists of Popes, saints, and pieces of esoteric information. Who, for example, was the first saint to be photographed? I once knew, but have forgotten.

Which is the most beautiful image of the Madonna in existence? This is the question that is currently vexing me. I do not think that we can ever really have agreement on such a matter, but it is beyond doubt that there are many ugly pictures of the Madonna in existence. I myself strongly dislike many of the images of Our Lady of Sorrows that are so popular in Italy. But two of the most beautiful images of the Madonna that I have ever seen are both in Rome. One is the statue of the Regina Pacis, the Queen of Peace, that dates from the time of the First World War, and which is to be found on the left hand side of Saint Mary Major’s. It is an art nouveau Madonna, and you can see a picture of it here. 

The other great statue is la Madonna del Parto, Our Lady of Childbirth, which is to be found just inside the door of Sant’ Agostino in Rome, the very fine church only a few metres from the Piazza Navona. Most people come to look at the paintings of Caravaggio, but they ought not to miss the Madonna. There is a picture here. This statue is the work of Jacopo Sansovino, the great renaissance sculptor, though I have heard the claim that the statue is in fact an ancient work, originally meant to represent the goddess Juno and subsequently adapted for Christian use. (Augustus Hare subscribes to this theory and makes good polemical use of it, but no one else I know of believes this nowadays.)

The Madonna del Parto is the Madonna to whom Roman women who are unable to bear children still turn; and she is the one who protects those in labour; around her statue are numerous ex votos and hundreds of photographs of babies, the evidence of answered prayers.

Both of these works are supremely beautiful, to my mind, and both make a significant religious impact as well. They make theological statements, manifesting to us profound truths about God, about the world and about ourselves. One comes away from contemplating them changed.

As for the greatest Catholic work of art ever created, which tells us more than most books of theology ever could, by pointing us towards the transcendent, that is also in Rome. I mean, of course, Bernini’s Saint Teresa in Ecstasy,  which is found in a rather unremarkable church not far from the noise and squalor of Termini station. But that is the way of God, and of Rome: one turns a corner and one comes face to face with the most astonishing beauty where perhaps you least expect it.

  • daclamat

    St Teresa on ecstasy is thankfully in a rather unremarkable church, so sparing parents the embarassment of answering their children’s question. The Madonna perfume add is rather beatiful, since uses the same brands as the Holy Father. In His divine providence Our Lord has given us His Mother to whom the infertile may turn, and will protect them in labour. Powerful theological statements indeed, manifesting profound truths about God. Thank you Father Lucie-Smith for bringing breathless truth to our mundane existence.

  • Paul Halsall

    Bernini’s statute of St. Theresa is without any doubt impressive, but I am rather surprised to see Fr. Lucie-Smith exalt it.

    Although religious  sexual ecstasy is indeed a theme in mystical writing (St. John of the Cross explicitly discuss the problem of men getting an erection during mystical prayer) , it is not exactly a major theme of modern Catholic preaching.

  • daclamat

    Scared. They don’t understand it. What they don’t know they can’t talk about. It’s worth having a look at Bernini on-line. Imagine if he had had had his hammer and chisel when they were doing the Khahuajaro  temples. When I first saw  them I blushed to the roots of my toes; then my Hindou friend put me right.  “This isn’t a recipe book but a celebration of the myriad ways God has given to express love !” Worship. Don’t we say: With my body I Thee worship.
    Yes but…?
    But me no buts. Yes, your are feeling amazing.  So you should. “You’re not sick you’re just in love” as we used to sing. And Augustine thought he’d given the Manicheans the heeve-ho!

  • Honeybadger

    St Bernadette Soubirous remarked (I’ll paraphrase) that it is only when artists go to heaven and see Our Blessed Lady for themselves, they’ll realise how they have not even come close to reproducing her resemblance.

    And Saint Bernadette should know, shouldn’t she?

    Having recalled that fact, the statues of the Apparitions at Knock Shrine in Ireland by Professor Lorenzo Ferri are breathtakingly beautiful – especially Our Lady of Knock.

    Our Lady of Manchester in the Lady Chapel of the Hidden Gem, the statue at the right hand side as you walk in is another favourite of mine.

    I also love the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. I grew up with this image on the living room wall and my gran (RIP) would pray her daily rosary before her.

  • Honeybadger

    You are repelled by natural bodily functions, yet comment about men’s functions!


  • RW

    Don’t forget icons — Bernadette said that the earthly image which came closest to the expression of lovinf care is the mediaeval icon of Our Lady of Cambrai. 

     I love many versions of Our Lady Star of the Sea, especially an icon by this title by Fr Wm. McNichol.  

  • Amyhello

    i like it

  • Jane Roberts

    Says a lot about the good Father’s preferences; at least Teresa of Jesus was nulliparous.

    At least the Byzantine Madonnas bore no resemblance to reality. Can’t see Fr Lucie-Smith getting too enthused about the real deal-.e. dirty nappies and leaky nursing pads….

  • Guadalupe_house

    Hands down, I think the Pieta is the most beautiful statue of the Blessed Virgin. I’m referring to Michelangelo’s original masterpiece housed at the Vatican and not the other versions, or copies of it.

  • Claire Verde

    The most beautiful image of the Madonna is the one that touches your heart and gets you to believe in her son.

  • Joe

    They are all beautiful.

  • Joe

     Amen Claire; Amen.

  • Wulfrano Ruiz Sainz

    Beneath the dark indian features of the face of the Virgin of Guadalupe lies Our Lady’s true white jewish face.

  • Sanctuaryhouse2

    To me it’s how I saw her in 1951 when 14 when she requested I on becoming an adult found for her what is now called sanctuary house..which she herselfq named and which is known to our local bishop ever since 1979……


  • Neilshog

    Nothing touched me like the time I saw the “Pieta” by Michaelangelo. It was shipped to the New York for World’s Fair in 1962. It was beautifully displayed and at age 12 I was just in awe of it.

  • Mamago

    It is the one which She manifests herself to the soul. That image is Always the most beautiful and unique.

  • Youareahero

    our Lady Queen of Peace in Rome STILL Pierces my soul, if you ever see her face its one of sorrow yet determination, as in a mother saying ” Enough!, Peace now!” 

  • Macchabee

    Try Minh’s Our Lady of Tender Compassion  It is on website and featured this month in the St.Austin Review also called STAR.

  • Kathy Tesoriero

    I am a lifelong Catholic who grew up with parents who had an exceedingly deep devotion to the Mother of God.  I have had the good fortune to go to many holy Catholic places on Pilgrimages thruout my life. I have been to many Marian Shrines ect….but for me the image of Our Lady that has captured my Heart the mos,t the one which “flys above the others”, is the picture She Herself has given us in these “HER” times.  The Image of OUR LADY QUEEN OF PEACE weeping tears of blood….as Fr. Gerard Mc Ginnity said in these times “Our mother is pouring out Her very being on behalf of Her children as she pleads for us ON HER KNEES before the Father. She gave a particular promise of PROTECTION to allwho venerate her image and she told Christina Gallagher that “those who venerate me by this imaged, I will intercede for their every need and grace