All Categories, Faith & Life


January 17, 2020

– Maria Kwak*

One of the exhibition rooms at the Treasure of Sacred Arts of St Joseph’s Seminary is dedicated to the icons of Mary. During my field work here, a number of my associates demonstrated an interest in the image of Salus Populi Romani at the exhibition room. Many scholars in the context of the Jesuit arts in Macau, praise the artistic sensibilis. However, sacred arts implied more serious endeavours and consequences in their times. In an effort to conserve it as sacred art and Catholic heritage, I would like to share the vision provided by Pope Pius XII; “Preserving its destiny is to guide the soul to God.” In other words, our soul is ultimately destined to meet God, by appreciating the beauty of art.

What is Salus Populi Romani? The most well-known image of this icon Salus Populi Romani Madonna is at the Pauline Chapel of the Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, the oldest church in the West dedicated in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It literally translates as the “Salvation of the Roman People,” which originated from a pagan ritual of the ancient Roman Republic. After the legalization of Christianity by Emperor Constantine the Great through the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, it was sanctioned as a Marian title for the Blessed Virgin Mary.

In 431, the title “Mother of God” was bestowed by the Council of Ephesus. The Greek initials in this image say “Theotokos”, ΜΡ ΘΥ, “Mater Dei” in Latin. Such dogma was subject to controversies within the church for many centuries. We may observe the significance of this dogma from the Church of Mater Dei, St Paul’s in Macau.

How did it travel to Macau? According to the De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas suscepta ab Societate Jesu written by Ricci and Trigault, Ricci mentions an image which “was said to be a great duplicate of the original painting made by Luke,” presented by Manuel Díaz. The artist of the original image in Rome is attributed to Luke, the first iconographer. The copy was painted in Spain and presented by a priest in the Philippines in 1600. Likewise, Carlo Spinola wrote a letter to the Rector of the Society of Jesus in Manila on 6th February, 1602 in reference to this image. Therefore, we understand that the earliest copies were made in Europe and brought to China and Macau via the Philippines.

You will notice the difference in the two paintings. They are not identical. The oil paintings are made on two sides of a copper sheet, in the style of a banner specifically made for a procession. While some believe that the paintings are creative variations made by the artists in Macau, their authentic representations are based on the prototypes found in Rome and Lisbon. The two-sided panel paintings at the Seminary is one of its kind.

From Rome to Macau via Lisbon Since the birth of this image, it was a “travelling saint” which travelled around Europe and had been processed through the streets of Lazio during the “santo viaggio.” It was only in the middle of the 16th century when Francis Borgia proposed the image to be installed permanently at the Pauline Chapel in 1569. Until this time, copies of this image were never made. In this regard, Francis Borgia (1510-1572), then the third Superior General of the Society of Jesus, was the central figure. Likewise, the founder St Ignatius of Loyola as well as St Stanislaus Kostka were devoted to this image.

In June 1569, Pius V (1504-1572) granted the permission to reproduce the image. The order’s particular devotion to this image played a significant role in obtaining a mobility to elsewhere in the world. It was a revolutionary event, breaking with custom. The significance of this event is evidenced by the 17th century engraving of St Francis Borgia with the Salus Populi Romani Madonna in his hand, at the Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu.

The other image with pastel tones was based on the image at the Museu de São Roque

in Lisbon. The church of St Roche is the first Jesuit church built in Portugal. St Francis Borgia offered it to Catherine of Austria (1507-1578), then Queen of Portugal. Upon its arrival in Lisbon, this led to a prompt reproduction of images, fueled by the significance of Counter-Reformation movement in the 16th century. This image was initially brought to Lisbon from Rome in 1569, by Jesuit Father Inácio de Azevedo (1526-1570). In fact, we know that he left for Brazil from a letter which was sent to St Francis Borgia shortly before his departure in June, 1570. Together with 39 men, who lost their lives when attacked by huguenots in the Canary Islands. For obvious reasons, the Portugese crown was the target of other European power players who fell apart from Catholicism. From the incident which took the Jesuit Father’s life, we may learn the atmosphere of Europe during the mid-16th century, which coincides with the beginning of the missions to the Far East. In the midst of religious confrontations, the images were exported through the Jesuit missionaries throughout the world.

Contribution of Catholic Arts It was not some image selected randomly because it was aesthetically appealing to the eyes of Chinese or based on the popularity of the image in the first place. However, it did not fail to appeal to pagans when they faced the language barrier. Through the letter written by Carlo Spinola, we also learn that the image of Salus Populi Romani was one of the gifts to Emperor Wanli (1563-1620) at the Court in Peking. Matheo Riscio and Diego de Pantoja have reported that it was worshipped by the Empress at her Royal Chamber. From this account, the appreciation for art and its beauty is certainly something that can be shared universally. She is truly the Regina to all people from the West to East. Luke’s image certainly uplifted all the souls who came in contact with this image and continue to inspire us in every corner of the world where the image has reached. In this regard, Luke turned out to be a physician of both body and soul.

Art & Prayer Even without knowing the history, many find this image exceptionally beautiful and naturally lead us to contemplative mood. This shares the concept of the “Art and Prayer” which Benedict XVI has spoken of. He encouraged those who appreciate art to also find a living relationship with God through prayer. The boldness of the primary colors used in this Byzantine image transmites us the courage. The word “courage” comes from the Latin word “cor”, meaning “heart”. The willingness to overcome one’s fear, uncertainty and pain comes first from the heart, not from the knowledge.

Similarly, in Eastern traditions, Lao Tzu defines that love makes a person courageous. Indeed, courage is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Pope Paul VI (1897-1978) who had proclaimed the Salus Populi Romani as Mother of the Church continues to touch our hearts and inspires us to seek grace in our faith. “It is therefore with a soul full of trust and filial love that We raise Our glance to her, despite Our unworthiness and weakness. She, who has given Us in Jesus the fountainhead of grace, will not fail to succor the Church, now flourishing through the abundance of the gifts of the Holy Ghost and setting herself with new zeal to the fulfillment of its mission of salvation.” (Paul VI, 1964, at the close of the third session of the Second Vatican Council)

*Candidate in MA in History & Heritage Studies at USJ