The Statue of the Holy Child of Ara Coeli: an Immemorial Roman Tradition 

Tourists walking behind the great memorial to King Vittorio Emanuele II that dominates
Piazza Venezia, in the very center of Rome, will soon find a grand theatrical staircase to their
left, leading up to the entrance of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli (or Our Lady of the
Altar in Heaven).

The location of this church is tied to numerous legends, some connected to the history of ancient Rome, and some to the arrival of Christianity in the capital of the empire. In the early Republican period, this hill was apparently associated with the worship of the goddess Juno. A temple dating to at least the fourth century BC hosted a gaggle of sacred geese, whose loud honking reportedly warned the Romans of the impending attack of the Gauls and thus saved the city from destruction. Because of this episode, the goddess Juno was here venerated under the title of Juno Moneta – ‘she who warns’ – though the term would quickly be associated with the activity of issuing metal currency(moneta).

The Mirabilia Urbis Romae, Marvels of the City of Rome, a 12th century Medieval guide of Rome, records that during the reign of Augustus, the prophetess known as the Tiburtine Sybil told the emperor at this location that the savior of humanity would soon come to earth. Here, she prophesied, there would be an altar to the Son of God: Haec est ara Filii Dei. This story is most likely legendary, but what we know is that the top of this hill was also the seat of the official augurs of the Roman state (auguraculum). Its proximity to the capitol, which was for centuries was the center of civic power in the city, effectively bestowed the role of civic shrine onto any cultic structure built in the area.

Indeed, even during the often-chaotic Middle Ages, important civic events continued to
take place here: death sentences were executed at the bottom of the steps; Cola di Rienzo (1313-
1354), whose ambition was to restore the Roman Republic taking advantage of the Popes’ move
to Avignon, was put to death here; and the famous poet Petrarch (1304-1374) received the crown
of Poet Laureate in the church in 1341, shortly before the Black Death of 1348. Certainly, it was in
the wake of the great pestilence that swept through Europe that the church and the staircase took
their present appearance. If the first church on the site had been a Byzantine basilica built for the
celebration of the Greek liturgy, by the late Middle Ages the church had passed to the
Benedictines and finally to the Franciscans, in whose hands it remains today. Visitors to the
church today are still struck by the fact that each one of the columns supporting the ceiling is
different, all taken from different Roman buildings. The golden ceiling, completed in 1575, is actually an ex voto in Thanksgiving for the victory of Lepanto over the Turks. It was this church that hosted the Te Deum celebrating the return of Marcantonio Colonna, the leader of the fleet that had defeated the Ottomans in the waters of the Adriatic.

This parade of historical events, however, would probably mean very little for most ordinary Romans, who in the past would come and visit this basilica especially during Advent and during the Christmas period, to offer their prayers to the wooden statue of the Holy Child of Aracoeli – il Santo Bambino, or, in the Roman vernacular, er Pupone, an affectionate expression that makes gentle fun of the statue’s puffy cheeks. Carved in the 15th century in olive wood taken from the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem, the statue was stolen by Napoleon’s soldiers who in 1797 took over the church and for a few years turned it into a stable. After it was recovered, devotion to the statue actually increased in the early 19th century, especially after a child in the Torlonia princely family allegedly recovered from a severe illness when the statue was taken to his bedside. From that moment onwards, Prince Alessandro Torlonia would spend every Thursday bringing the statue on house calls to visit sick individuals who were unable to climb the stairs of the basilica.

In 1848 the anti-clerical revolutionaries that established a short-lived Roman republic again threatened to destroy the statue, which was smuggled to safety by the Franciscans. All of these events only led to a growth in the devotion to the statue, which was formally recognized by Pope Leo XIII in 1894 and later crowned in 1897. For decades, until the Second Vatican Council, on the day of the Epiphany, the statue was taken out to the entrance of the church to bless the city of Rome. Unfortunately, while the statue had escaped Napoleon’s soldiers and the 19th century revolutionaries, two thieves masquerading as construction workers were able to steal the statue on February 1st , 1994. A copy was soon placed in the side chapel where the original had been kept, but the latter, to this day, has never been recovered. On a humorous note, Romans still remember that the inmates of Rome’s notorious prison, Regina Coeli, issued an appeal asking the authors of the theft to return the statue, and when that failed, raised money for a copy. 

Today, despite encroaching secularization, devotion to the Holy Child remains strong. During the weeks between Christmas and the Epiphany, children are still taken to visit the statue – which is then placed in the church’s creche-  and recite poems to er Pupone before asking for a particular grace. If their requests are going to be granted, the belief says , the lips of the statue will turn red; if not, they will remain white. In the year of the 800th anniversary of the Christmas at Greccio, as the faithful are invited to visit a Franciscan church and pray in front of a Nativity scene, it is quite likely that the Ara Coeli creche will receive even more visitors than is usual.  

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