Once a week in Chiesa Nuova (Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella), after Saturday evening mass, worshippers can take part in a very strange spectacle – the sexton lets down a Ruben’s painting by remote control to reveal a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary behind it. The source of this phenomenon dates back to the early 16th century. The painting is raised again on Sunday evening after mass.
At that time, a fresco depicting the Virgin and Child was on view outside, on the façade of a public bathhouse where the apse of the church now stands. In 1535, an unbeliever threw a stone at the image of the Virgin, who astonishingly began to bleed. The image was placed inside the original Vallicella church for safekeeping. When the new church was built, following the installation of Saint Phillip Neri’s Congregation of the Oratory, the scared image was in the first chapel to the right. But the conditions for conservation of the fresco rapidly deteriorated and to safeguard it, the decision was made to place it behind the high altar. In 1606, Rubens was commissioned to paint a canvas that would serve to protect the image of the Virgin.
A first attempt failed, but in 1608 Rubens painted a work entitled Angels Adoring the Madonna Vallicelliana, which incorporated a special feature – a panel that could be removed to reveal behind it the miraculous Holy image it was designed to protect.
So next time you are in Rome, go and see this Rubens painting and if you are inclined attend Mass so that you can see the Rubens being lowered!