The Miraculous Image of the Madonna
of San Sisto
Before the masterful frescoes of Blessed Fra
Angelico graced the cloister of San Marco, the Order of Preachers
(Dominicans) possessed an artistic work of great character and
heritage in the miraculous image of the Madonna of San Sisto
in Rome, Italy.
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This icon of Our Lady was thought during the Middle Ages to have
been designed by Saint Luke the Evangelist and to have been painted
by angels. Legend held that a holy man from the East brought
it to Rome. There it was acquired by three brothers who were
exiles from Constantinople, presumably because their adherence
to orthodox Christianity, ran into conflict with an outbreak
of monophysitism or iconoclasm. The image was placed in the Church
of Santa Agata in Turn outside the Appian Way, which, in honor
of the icon, became known as alternatively, Santo Maria in Turn
and Santa Maria in Tempulo. Confirming parts of this medieval
legend, modern historical study has indicated that this Madonna
is of Byzantine origin and was venerated at least by the end
of the fifth century.
When Saint Dominic was charged by Pope Honorius III to establish
a reformed community of nuns at San Sisto in Rome, one of the
communities from which nuns were voluntarily drawn was the monastery
at Santa Maria in Tempulo. St. Dominic lavished his attention
upon the nuns of Santa Maria, preaching to them and giving them
spiritual direction. It was to each of these same women in 1219
that St. Dominic brought wooden spoons which he had carried on
a journey from Spain. At that same time, he received the promise
of the nuns that they would enter the new community of San Sisto.
However, the mere possibility of the nuns moving from their monastery
into a stricter community caused their relatives and friends
to protest vociferously. After further entreaties from St. Dominic,
most of the nuns agreed to join the new community of San Sisto.
The nuns placed one caveat on their promise: that the miraculous
image of the Madonna in Santa Maria in Tempulo should also come
with them. This was no ordinary request. Legend had it that in
the tenth century Pope Sergius III tried to move the painting
into the John Lateran Church, but it had returned miraculously
to its original home. God seemingly wanted the painting to remain
in Santa Maria in Tempulo.
St. Dominic was not daunted by the challenge. On the First Sunday
of Lent, February 28, 1221, Our Holy Father gave the habit and
received in his hands the profession of the nuns entering San
Sisto. During the following night, St. Dominic carried the miraculous
image of the Madonna to its new home at San Sisto. The painting
did not fly back on its own accord, thus bestowing the divine
seal of approval to St. Dominic's foundation.
The miraculous Madonna remained at San Sisto until 1575, when
it was transferred to San Dominico and Sisto on the Quirinal
where the nuns had relocated upon the urging of Pope Saint Pius
V. After the monastery became the home of the Angelicum, the
image was under the care of the Dominican friars for a time.
In 1931, however, the image was placed in Santa Maria del Rosario
e della Febbre a Monte Mario where the nuns had moved into a
new monastery. The image was restored by Dr. Carlo Bertelli in