Restoration of the 17th Century Salus Populi Romani Icon at St. Mary Major

February 02, 2018

After a “long and difficult work of restoration” that lasted several months, according to L’Osservatore Romano, the Salus Populi Romani icon has returned to its place in the basilica of St. Mary Major. It can once again be seen above the altar dedicated to it in the Pauline chapel


Every year, on the last Sunday of January, the Romans celebrate the feast of the Translation of the icon to its present location, that occurred on January 27, 1613. This time, the feast took on a more solemn character, for Pope Francis took part in this popular devotion for the first time, in celebration of its restoration. The Holy Father celebrated Mass at the basilica of St. Mary Major on the morning of January 28, 2018, for the return of the icon.

In July of 2017, scientists from the Vatican Museum Workshop for the restoration of paintings and wooden artifacts noticed that time had caused a certain amount of deterioration. The painting of the Virgin and Child has since been restored to its splendor and luminosity thanks to the work of teams from the Vatican Museums.

The Vaticanist Sandro Magister relates on his blog L’Espresso that according to tradition, the icon is a copy, painted by the evangelist St. Luke, of an image of Mary and the Child Jesus that appeared miraculously in a church built by the apostles Peter and John in the city of Lydda (now known as Lod, in Israel). The icon was originally kept in Byzantium, where St. Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine, brought it from the Holy Land, but was later brought to Rome by sea and was received by Pope Gregory the Great on the banks of the Tiber.

Cardinal Cesare Baronio (1538-1607), a historian of the Church, reports that Pope Gregory himself placed the icon in the basilica of St. Mary Major in 590, after a procession to beg for an end to one of the worst plague epidemics ever to strike the city of Rome: “On this occasion, the Archangel Michael was seen above the tomb of Hadrian putting his sword back in its sheath.” The plague ended, and the tomb became known as the Castel Sant’Angelo.

The icon is venerated as a protector of Rome in great dangers, but its title, “Salus Populi Romani” applies to the universal Church: Mary holds in her arms the Savior, the salvation of all.

Aleteia tells that when Pope Francis was still Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, every time he came to Rome, he “never failed to come pray before the icon. And whenever his priests in Buenos Aires left for Rome he would ask them to go there and say a Hail Mary for him.”

Still today, Pope Francis visits the basilica of St. Mary Major to pray before the Virgin of Salus Populi Romani before and after every foreign trip. On September 7, 2013, he had the icon taken out and processed around St. Peter’s Square in the midst of the crowd, carried by four halberdiers of the Swiss Guard and preceded by two little girls with flower bouquets, for a vigil of fasting and prayer to beg for peace in Syria.

Four and a half centuries earlier, Pope St. Pius V did the same to beseech Heaven for success of the Christian fleet at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.

Pius XII paid homage to the icon when he proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption in 1950, and he crowned it in St. Peter’s in 1954 for the centenary of the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.