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The Cult of ‘Maria Regina’ in Early Medieval Rome
By John Osborne
Paper given at the Norwegian Institute in Rome (2004)
Introduction: Few cities in the Christian world can boast such a deep connection to the cult of Mary as can the city of Rome, and none can claim a longer history of depicting her in art, stretching back in time at least to the early years of the third century in the catacomb of Priscilla on the via Salaria. Indeed it would not be too outrageous to claim that the true patron saint of the Roman church is Mary, not Peter or Paul, and one suspects that such a sentiment might certainly be shared by the current pontiff. Of the many Marian images which have graced Rome’s churches over the past 1500 years or more, and which in many instances continue to do so, there is one iconographic type in particular which has come to be associated with the arts of the city, and perhaps more specifically with the patronage of the papacy, and that is the image of Mary crowned as queen (or empress) of heaven: usually known by the Latin epithet “Maria regina”. This phrase actually appears in the arts for the first time in a Roman context: flanking the head of Mary in a now sadly dilapidated mural formerly in the atrium of S. Maria Antiqua, and datable to the reign of pope Hadrian I (772-795), who appears with a square “halo” at the far left of the composition. Thus, from the beginning, it would appear that the concept of Maria regina and the Roman papacy go hand in hand, and this linkage was first made some 80 years ago in a famous article by Marion Lawrence, published in The Art Bulletin.
Indeed, it is probably no coincidence that the two images chosen to illustrate the programme of this very conference depict Mary in this fashion, one from the lower church of San Clemente (on the cover), and a second (inside) from the 12th-century apse mosaic of S. Maria in Trastevere — the latter constituting one of the two examples of this imagery in the closest physical proximity to the very room in which we are now sitting. This paper will explore the origins of the concept of Mary as queen, primarily although not exclusively in the visual arts.
While accepting that Rome, and in particular the papacy, adopted this iconography wholeheartedly and made it their own, I shall propose nonetheless that the origins of the concept lay principally elsewhere — and most likely should be attributed to the Byzantine court in Constantinople. This may not be a popular view for an audience gathered in Rome, but I believe it is the only view that is consistent with the evidence on hand, scanty as that may be.