Friday, July 14, 2006

Miraculous images: the Mother of Good Counsel

About 50 kilometers south of Rome lies Genazzano. The small Italian town is renowned throughout the world for its miraculous image of the Virgin Mary, known as the Mother of Good Counsel. It is kept in the town's Augustinian church and attracts many pilgrims.

The story of the shrine begins in 1467. According to a legend in that year a widow called Petruzzia di Janeo decided to rebuild Genazzano's old Augustinian church. The building had since long been decrepit. The people of Genazzano laughed at the widow's plans, knowing that she lacked the means for such an undertaking. Although they did for a while help to rebuild the church, they refused their aid when Petruzzia ran out of money. Then on April 25 1467, Saint Mark's Day, a miracle happened. While the population of Genazzano participated in a festive carnival, a cloud descended from a sparkling clear sky before the uncompleted church. When the cloud disappeared, a small picture of the Virgin and Child could be witnessed on one of the church's inside walls. At the same moment, all the town's church bells began to ring. The story of the miraculous picture soon spread and many people came to view it. Between the end of April and mid-August of 1467, 171 miracles were recorded at the site.

Because of its miraculous origin, the image became known as the 'Madonna of Paradise'. But where did the people of Genazzano believe it came from? The second part of the legend provides an answer to this question: A short while after the image appeared, two Albanians arrived in Genazzano. They had fled from the Ottoman Turks, who occupied Albania at the time. The men told the people of Genazzano the image came from a church in their hometown Scutari, the current city of Shkodra. There it had been an object of fervent veneration. However, shortly before the Turkish occupation of the city, it miraculously left Scutari. The men testified they had seen the image being carried by a cloud in the direction of Italy, to where they followed it.

The half figure of the Mother of Good Counsel is a so-called 'Eleousa', a depiction of the Virgin Mary as 'Mother of Tenderness'. Mother and Child appear before a curtain with a rainbow behind.The fresco is executed on a thin layer of plaster. It is probably an Umbrian work dating from the 14th century. Stylistically, the image is strongly influenced by the work of the famous Italian artist Giotto (1267-1337).

Over the centuries, millions of pilgrims have come to view the image in Genazzano's Augustinian church. It is kept in one of the church's side chapels. After a papal coronation in November 1682, a canon of Saint Peter's chapter in Rome reported that the image is for the most part suspended in the air, only attached to the wall at the top. This was considered a miracle. It was also believed that at certain times the facial expressions of the image changed.

Most striking about the devotion to the Mother of Good Counsel is that it is found all over the world. In many countries there are shrines and churches dedicated to this particular image of the Virgin. The widespread popularity is largely due to the promotion of the cult by the Augustinian order, who choose the Virgin of Good Counsel as their patron. Everywhere the Augustinians went, they took copies of the image with them. In central Europe alone, about 70.000 copies could be found in the 18th century. In 1748 the first Italian devotional book was published, which was soon translated into other languages. The Jesuits have also spread the devotion, like they did with many other local Marian cults.

On April 26, the Mother of Good Counsel in commemorated in a special Mass. The feast has been celebrated in Genazzano since 1727 and was officially approved in 1789. The invocation 'Mother of Good Counsel, pray for us' was added to the Litany of Loreto in the 19th century.

The image of the Mother of Good Counsel remains one of the world's most venerated images of the Virgin Mary. Its popularity is probably due to two factors: the striking tenderness of Mother and Child and its appealing title. The title is probably a popular expression of the ancient theological idea of Mary as a manifestation of Divine Wisdom. That is why one can often read the following text from Ecclesiastes (6:24) on old devotional prints of the Mother of Good Counsel: 'Listen my son, and accept a wise advice and do not reject my counsel'.


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