NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Ninety-six paintings from St. Peter’s Basilica that have never been on display are on view in New Haven, Conn., thanks to a collaboration between the Vatican and the Knights of Columbus.

The exhibit, “Full of Grace: Crowned Madonnas from the Vatican Basilica,” is at the Knights of Columbus Museum until next January, and consists of various images of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. It opened, appropriately, on Mother’s Day, May 8. It would have debuted the previous Sunday, May 1, the beginning of the month dedicated to Mary, but the curator was otherwise occupied.

That’s because he’s Pietro Zander, the archeologist in charge of the Vatican Necropolis for the Fabbrica di San Pietro, which maintains the basilica and its sacred art. He could not make it to New Haven in time for a May 1 opening because he was busy overseeing the transfer of the body of Blessed Pope John Paul II for his beatification.

Zander oversaw the restoration of the Marian images over an eight-year period and the research that went into the exhibit.

All of the paintings in the exhibit, as well as a bronze reproduction of Michelangelo’s Pieta, are copies of paintings or sculptures that have been crowned by permission of the Vatican. It’s a practice that dates back to the early 17th century, which recognizes the uniqueness of a Marian image, a particularly strong local devotion and reports of a miracle associated with the image. Some 1,300 such images all over the world have been given the honor, which promotes universal veneration. The Vatican possesses copies of 120 of them, which were sent to Rome as part of the process of obtaining permission and documenting the crowning.

The oils in the exhibit, which depict both paintings and statues, are from Italy, the rest from Europe and Latin America. But the honor of crowning has been given to Marian images from around the world. The most recent to receive the honor is the Polish Madonna of Czestochowa: Just a few hours before Pope John Paul II died in 2005, officials brought him the news that it had been crowned. The copy is now in the National Polish Chapel in the Grottoes of St. Peter’s, which was restored in 1982 at the request of Blessed John Paul through the sponsorship of the Knights of Columbus.

The exhibition includes copies of Our Lady of the Rosary from Pompeii; a Madonna “of the Chain,” commemorating freedom from the Turks; and one in which Mary is bleeding from several parts of her body. The story goes that a man playing cards nearby became enraged (“He probably lost,” quips Zander) and stabbed the image. “It began to bleed,” Zander said. “Everyone went to pray in front of it and obtained several miracles.”

There’s also a canvas displayed without a frame. That’s because when restorers went to work on it, they found that it had been painted on the reverse of an earlier, classical-style painting — suggesting the need to economize.

Visitors can also view filmed footage of some of the more recent ceremonies in which Marian images were crowned.

Zander, who oversaw the restoration of St. Peter’s tomb, was in New Haven May 6 for a pre-opening reception. He spoke there to the Register, with the translation assistance of Count Enrico Demajo, who heads the Knights’ Rome office.

What does your job entail?

I’m in charge of the excavation below the lowest level at St. Peter’s, and I’m in charge of maintaining the masterpieces of St. Peter’s.

How many of these images exist at the Vatican?

Altogether, 120. There are [almost] 100 here and 20 left. There were 1,300, but many of them have been sent out to parishes.

Why did you choose these particular ones for this exhibit?

The main reason is that these 100 have been restored. But each one represents the same kind of issue, representing a devotion to the Virgin Mary.

What was your role in this exhibit?

I was in charge of the research and the scientific part, in terms of restorations. When you restore something, you have to know what you are doing. Another lady, an archivist, did all the historical research, to identify each single painting, because at the beginning they didn’t know exactly which Virgin Mary represents which kind of miracle, so they had to do some research to connect the image with the miracle, which had not been done before.

All these had to be restored before they could be brought here for this exhibit, so was this exhibit in the planning since before then?

In 2003, with the beginning of restorations, I had the idea that when they are all restored, we could make a nice exhibit. I spoke with the Supreme Knight [Carl Anderson], and he agreed. So little by little, they went on restoring all of the paintings, and when they reached No. 100, we arranged the display.

Why the Knights of Columbus?

For 30 years, the Knights have been a partner with the basilica. They’ve sponsored several works in the grottoes and the restoration of the facade in 1986. So we chose the Knights of Columbus to show how grateful we are.

All of these are crowned images. Why is that?

In 1636, they made a rule in the basilica that they could crown images of the Virgin Mary that have done something miraculous. Whoever had such an image of the Virgin Mary could write to the Chapter of the Basilica asking about the possibility of crowning the image. They would have to bring some sort of documentation: proving that the image was antique, the devotion the image had was long-standing, and the event that happened, connected to the image, was miraculous.

People at the basilica would evaluate those documents and gave the privilege of crowning the image. Then when they crowned the image, they were required to send to the basilica a copy of the image of the Virgin Mary crowned.

By “antique,” what do you mean, exactly?

There wasn’t a fixed rule about how antique they should be, but the image should have been there for some time, and during that period of time the devotion should have always been very strong. There are images in this gallery, statues or paintings of the Virgin Mary, that were made seven centuries after Christ. Others are much newer, from the 19th century.

Are they all copies of miraculous images?

Yes, only if you have a miracle could the image be crowned. For most of them, the original is in a sanctuary. Because of a miracle, a local devotion began and grew a lot, and finally they were somehow obliged to build a sanctuary containing the Madonna.

Is the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe part of this?

We don’t have the copy. But that Virgin has been crowned. Over the centuries, some of those images were returned to the original sanctuary or given as a gift to other churches. And maybe sometimes they were lost or damaged.

The last chapel [of most recent construction] in St. Peter’s Basilica is dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe. It’s one of the chapels closest to the tomb of Peter. There is a mosaic representing the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the altar and chairs were made with stone from the Hill of Tepeyac.

Why is an exhibit like this is important for the Church at this time?

An exhibit like this tells the story of devotion to the Virgin Mary, which crosses time and space. It’s similar all over the world. John Paul II himself gave himself to the Virgin Mary in his motto “Totus Tuus,” and they gave him, the day before his death, one of these crowned Madonnas.

Speaking of Blessed John Paul II, you had a special role in the beatification ceremonies, didn’t you? What were some of the difficulties you had to overcome in transferring the body?

To bring the body from the grotto to the level of the basilica … Only saints and blesseds can be buried [on the main floor of] the basilica. Pope John Paul II was buried in the grotto, which is one level below. In order to have a tomb for John Paul II, we had to move another pope, Innocent XI, who has been moved to near the main altar. The empty space has been used for John Paul II, near Michelangelo’s Pieta.

The main problem was how to handle an incredible number of people that came to Rome — 1.5 million people. We had to keep the basilica open all night long to allow all the people to pass by the casket of Pope John Paul II. Then, after that incredible show of devotion, we had to close the basilica for a private ceremony to close the tomb under the altar of St. Sebastian.

It was an extraordinary event and a privilege to participate.

What were some of the reactions and feelings of some of the people working on this, exhuming the body and installing it in its new resting place?

The cardinals and workers who were there had had a chance to meet John Paul II, so it was particularly moving for them.

Was the casket opened at all? Was anyone able to see the body of Pope John Paul II during this process?


Are there any plans for that, looking ahead in the canonization process?

That depends on the Pope. An expert in chemistry would be authorized to check the body and do some kinds of things for the body in order for it to be displayed. But only the Pope can authorize that.

John Burger is the Register’s news editor.


Full of Grace
Knights of Columbus Museum
1 State St.
New Haven, CT
Open daily: 10am-5pm
Admission and parking are free.
(203) 865-0400