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Ancient Image of Mary in Priestly Vestments
Hidden by Church

 


The Chapel of St. Venantius, which was added in the years 640-42
to the Baptistry at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome

 

During my visit to Rome in March, 2008 I stopped at the Baptistry of St. John Lateran to look for a particular image of Mary I had seen referenced in an old book. I didn’t know the exact size or location, but finally found it in the Chapel of St. Venantius, which was added to the Baptistry in 640-42. The Chapel has been partially remodeled, I believe sometime within the last 50 years. A poured concrete floor was added, suspended over the ancient floor, and a new altar and altarpiece (technically a reredos, an ornamental partition wall behind an altar) were added.

The picture above is the Chapel, which looks like a typical ancient Roman Chapel. But something different. The “new” altarpiece is disproportionately tall, hiding the apse mosaic, an original mosaic from the 7th century. I couldn't recall seeing another church in Rome where the apse mosaic is hidden in this manner. I asked myself “what's the deal - since when do you hide a 7th century mosaic?” The reason becomes obvious when you walk up to the side and peek behind the altarpiece.

Apparently the Church hides such an apse mosaic when it shows the Virgin Mary wearing the pallium, the ancient priestly vestment that only archbishops and popes have worn for the last 1,600 years or so. The mosaic shows Mary wearing a white pallium over a dark chasuble, portrayed as a priest, with her hands raised in intercessory prayer.

I can only assume that when this chapel was remodeled church officials, while they could not bring themselves to alter the apse mosaic, must have decided to cover it up. I'm sure they felt it was scandalous to show a woman wearing a garment that is reserved for archbishops and popes.

The new altarpiece features a much more "traditional" image of Mary with the baby Jesus.

Intercession and mediation are among the priestly functions ascribed to Mary by the Fathers of the Church. For more information on this topic, see the Women Priests web site which also shows more images of Mary wearing the pallium.

On Mary's right are St. Paul, St. John the Evangelist, St. Venantius and Pope John IV (who holds a model of his chapel). On her left are St. Peter, St. John the Baptist, an unidentified martyr, and Pope Theodore I (who commissioned the mosaic; he holds a casket).

For more information on this chapel, see http://www.sacred-destinations.com/italy/rome-lateran-baptistery.htm

 

 


Another view of the chapel, showing the relatively new floor, suspended above the original tiled floor

 
A short video I shot while walking up to the apse. Unfortunately the conversion to YouTube made the video rather dark, but it demonstrates the point.


View of the apse mosaic from the right

What Is the Pallium?

 

The pallium is an ancient vestment worn by Archbishops, Patriarchs and the Pope, and only worn while celebrating the Eucharist or other important liturgies. It is a circular band of white wool embroidered with six small crosses with a pendant in the front and the back. It slips over the head and hangs down in front and back draping the shoulders, symbolic of a sheep carried by the Good Shepherd. It also resembles a yoke, and is symbolic of submission of the Archbishop to the Pope (sort of like a leash!)

 

In the 6th century Pope Gregory wrote “Moved by the benevolence of the Apostolic See, and following ancient custom, I have thought fit to grant to you, … the use of the pallium." Here is someone ancient referring to the pallium as ancient - That means it really is ancient!

The origin of the wool used in the pallium is one of Rome's elaborate traditions.

Every year two baby lambs are raised by the Trappist Fathers of the Abbey of Tre Fontane (the Three Fountains - where St. Paul was beheaded. His head bounced three times, and three springs began flowing at those spots.)

On January 21st, the Feast of St. Agnes, there is an elaborate ceremony at the Basilica of St. Agnes Outside the Walls where the pope blesses the lambs. They are then placed in the care of the Benedictine nuns of St. Cecilia in Trastevere, who raise them until Holy Thursday when they are sheared. According to tradition, the lambs are later slaughtered and served for the Easter meal by the sisters.

The wool is used by the Oblates of St. Frances of Rome to weave the Pallia (but I recently read that the Nuns now outsource some of the weaving work!). On June 29th, the Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul, after the Second Vespers, the Pallia are blessed by the pope and placed in the box in the Niche of the Pallia, located directly above St. Peter's tomb below the Dome of St. Peter's Basilica, where they may rest for a year near the remains of the first pope - just as in ancient times when pilgrims lowered pieces of cloth to touch Peter's tomb.

All new Archbishops from the past year come to Rome on the feast of Ss. Peter & Paul. The previous year's pallia are removed and then presented personally by the Pope to the new Archbishops.