Virgin and Child (Salus Populi Romani, or icon of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore)
- unknown artist
Unknown artist, Virgin and Child (Salus Populi Romani, or Icon of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore), 1600s. Oil paint on paper adhered to wood panel; 5¼ × 3¾ in. Gift of the Stapleton Foundation of Latin American Colonial Art, made possible by the Renchard Family, 1990.328.
This small painting—less than six inches high—is a copy of the miraculous icon known as “Salus Populi Romani” or “Protectress of the Roman People” in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. The image is considered to be a true likeness of the Virgin Mary and Christ child, since according to tradition it was made by Saint Luke the Evangelist, who painted both figures from life. From the Middle Ages on, the icon was believed to protect Rome and its citizens from pestilence, famine, and war. In the Spanish Americas, devotion to the famous painting was likely first introduced and then perpetuated by members of the Jesuit Order, who used it and other similar miraculous images of the Madonna in their efforts to convert the indigenous people to Christianity. Numerous prints of the image, such as engravings by the prolific Flemish engraver Hieronymus Wierix, circulated throughout Europe and the Americas in the early modern period. In the case of this painting we can clearly tell that the artist relied on a print for the composition: in fact, the artist applied the paint directly on top of an engraving which was then adhered to a wood panel. Indeed, in several areas of the painting the underlying engraving is visible through small losses in the paint. The use of printed images for source material was a practice commonly employed by painters across Europe and the Americas. However, in the reproduction of miraculous images like the Salus Populi Romani, the close copying of prints could be particularly significant, as it was one way to ensure fidelity to the original image, and thus preserve the original’s numinous, miracle-working powers.
--Sabena Kull, 2017-18 Mayer Fellow for Spanish Colonial Art