Mosaic of Virgin Mary in St. Peter’s Square turns 30 years old

December 7, 2011. ( One of the last stones added to St. Peter’s Square is found high above the plaza, in this mosaic of the Virgin Mary, with the words “Mater Ecclesiae,” inaugurated by John Paul II on December 8, 1981.

The idea came from a young man who asked the pope during an audience why there were no images of the Virgin Mary in the square.

St. Peter’s Square was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1657. He along with his successors designed the imposing columns, the two beautiful fountains and the 162 saint statues that surround the square. But among so much beauty, there was clearly something missing. In the heart of Christianity there was no image of the Virgin Mary. A college student first brought this to the attention of Pope John Paul II in 1980. It was during an audience in Easter that the young man spoke to the Pope about this. Architect Javier Cotelo was there and remembers it well.

Javier Cotelo

“Holy Father, the square is incomplete: I looked and there are many saints … All the saints are there, but I haven’t found an image of the Virgin presiding over the square. “Bene, bene” said the Pope, “well then we must complete the square.”

Back then, that young student was in Rome to take part in  a conference called UNIV, which is organized by members of Opus Dei. He told his story to Monsignor Alvaro del Portillo, the successor of Josemaria Escrivá.  When Portillo heard that John Paul II wanted an image of the Virgin in the square, he asked Cotelo to find the best spot for newest addition.

“It was hard because the square was full of statues and of saints, and it didn’t make sense to add another. It had to be an important location, unique, yet not overwhelming.”

After many visits to St. Peter’s square and countless hours of work, the answer came on May 17, 1980. The best option was to design  a mosaic in one of the buildings next to the plaza.

“The site is located between St. Peter’s Square and the Cortile di San Damaso. There was a window there, which was probably not necessary because there are five or six already on the building and also a few more facing San Damaso.”

These are the sketches that were handed to the Pope on two occasions.  First in July 1980 and then in January 1981. Six months later, he was told the Vatican mosaic workshop was preparing the image for that exact location.

The mosaic was installed on December 7, 1981.  A day after, John Paul II blessed it from his window. Three days later he thanked all those involved, including Alvaro del Portillo.
“The Pope invited Monsignor Alvaro del Portillo for breakfast two days later. It was quite common for the Pope to invite people over for breakfast. That’s when the Pope told him how grateful he was for adding the image of the Virgin. He also gave him the piece of cardboard that was used to make the mosaic.”

That piece of cardboard is still in good condition. The image of the “Mater Ecclesia” is inspired by the oldest image of Mary found inside St. Peter’s Basilica.


About Gertrude

Sáncte Míchael Archángele, defénde nos in proélio, cóntra nequítiam et insídias diáboli ésto præsídium.
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