'Our Lady of COVID' - a 'message of hope' or a 'blasphemous provocation'

‘Our Lady of COVID’: a “message of hope” or a “blasphemous provocation”?

Are the ‘Our Lady of COVID’ images that have sprung up during the pandemic a “message of hope” or a “blasphemous provocation”? That’s the debate that has arisen in Italy, where popular opinion on the icons is divided.

– “There’s a Virgin for everything; why shouldn’t there be an ‘Our Lady of COVID’, a protective auspicious image?”

The first of the representations of the Madonna of the coronavirus appeared late May in Carrara, Italy’s famous marble quarry in the central Tuscan region, by the hand of master sculptor Angelo Dentoni.

As Dentoni’s pupil Andrea Lugarini explained at the time, the maestro made a 1.5cm-thick bas-relief of the Virgin Mary wearing a facemask on a 3cm thick waste slab of marble.

Lugarini went on to explain how the idea for the Our Lady of COVID image came about among the sculptors of the atelier:

“We’d often talk about the pandemic, playfully appealing to ‘Our Lady of COVID’. We frequently sculpt many images of Mary in marble; our town is full of representations of Mary, with different names, purposes, appearances. […] There’s one for everything, why shouldn’t there be an ‘Our Lady of COVID’ bringing a message of hope, a protective auspicious image?”

At a time when the coronavirus was still hitting Italy hard, Lugarini explained that the icon of Mary with a facemask “embodies the need of protection spread out across the country during the lockdown”.

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Commenting later on reactions to the innovative bas-relief of the Virgin, the apprentice said the sculptors in the studio “didn’t really expect this clamour”.

“Certainly, the attention our work has received comes from every man’s necessity to hold on to faith and to Mary during the storms of life”, Lugarini added.

Dentoni’s Our Lady of COVID received further media attention last month, when the magazine Maria Con Te (“Mary with you”) devoted a feature to it and explained that “the Marian icon inspired by the pandemics encloses in itself a message of hope and symbolises closeness to Our Lady”.

Dentoni, for his part, affirmed that his piece was “was inspired by a need of solace”, while Lugarini reaffirmed the desire of both to donate the sculpture to a local hospital.

– A new take on an old legend

Apart from Dentoni’s piece, another icon of the Madonna of the COVID that has gained notoriety these months has been a painting by young artist Maria Terzi depicting both the Virgin and the Child Jesus wearing surgical masks.

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Terzi’s piece gained visibility when it was hung in the Sotoportego della Peste passageway in the streets of Venice, in continuity with the tradition that holds that similar Marian icons hung in the same location saved the city from the black plague in 1630.

Video of Terzi’s painting in the sotoportego was posted to Facebook with the caption: “From the terrible pestilences of the past to the most modern pandemics of the new millennium, we Venetians are again united in pleading protection for our city”.

– “Improper to use the image of the Mother of God for any purpose other than devotional and liturgical”

But even despite artists Dentoni and Terzi’s pious and even traditional aims, their works haven’t failed to attract criticism, with traditionalist Italian website Messainlatino, for example, firing back over the art:

“Notwithstanding the good intentions which underlie these works, we consider it inappropriate to put a mask on the Most Blessed Virgin Mary. Maybe it’d have been enough to inscribe the works with the litany salus infirmorum [salvation of the sick]”. 

Conservative Catholic website Church Militant also spoke about Dentoni and Terzi’s pieces to Catholic painter Giovanni Gasparro, who said he considers it “improper to use the image of the Mother of God for any purpose other than devotional and liturgical”.

A Madonna or a Virgin and Child with a surgical mask was a “pointless manipulation, if not a blasphemous provocation”, Gasparro deplored, adding that for him it is “a matter of respect” and of avoiding the risk of desecration that traditional Catholic iconography be honoured.

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More stories on Novena on art and the Church:

‘Beggar Pope’ appears on Milan streets to call for COVID-19 “generosity and solidarity”

Guido Dettoni: when art does more than change the world

Special to Novena: Easter Sunday meditation: The resurrection of Maria

Italian bishop condemns “anti-Semitic regurgitations” in Church after “traditionalist” Catholic unveils blood libel painting

December 2019: Animal carcass crucifix stirs debate in Germany

November 2019: Polish artist decries Church incitement of “hatred” towards LGBT+ people

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Mada Jurado

Reporter and community manager at Novena
Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.