Back to articles

May legend have its roots in historical fact?

2015-12-14 09:09

So why, during Advent, are the one hundred and twenty-four steps of a church in Rome covered with hundreds of assorted statues of the Baby Jesus? When it might feel as though the Eternal City has more than enough souvenir shops to supply any Crib and the Piazza Navona is crammed to overflowing with stalls selling an immeasurable range of figures for inserting into any Nativity scene, the ancient church of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli is an amazing focus for the Infant Jesus.

There are many traditions associated with the church, one of which is that the marble staircase was built in 1348 and dedicated to Our Lady in thanksgiving for the deliverance of the city from yet another plague. Inside the basilica is a chapel especially devoted to the Baby Jesus, wherein is enshrined a replica of the original statue, stolen in 1994. Apparently the original was carved from a single piece of olive wood from the Garden of Gethsemane at some stage during the fifteenth or sixteenth century.

The Santissimo Bambinello has played an enormous part in the history of the people of Rome. Even today prayer requests come from all over the world to be placed beside the statue. In times past, when someone was sick, especially during periods of plague, the Baby Jesus was carried into people’s homes as a blessing and a prayer for their recovery.

However, there is a much more ancient tradition associated with the church of Ara Coeli, dating back at least to the eighth century and possibly even earlier.

Apparently the Roman Senate wanted to declare Caesar Augustus a “living god”. Unsure of what to do, he went down to the River Tiber to consult the Tiburtine Sibyl. There he learnt that “the future ruler will descend from the sun”. He is also said to have had a vision of a young woman, radiant with light and holding a child. A voice proclaimed, “This virgin will receive in-home warm the Saviour of the world and this is the altar of the Son of God”. Caesar is believed to have built a temple on the site of his vision and called it the Ara Coeli, or heavenly altar, mid-way between heaven and earth, where he could meet the heavenly ruler.

The church of Ara Coeli is very close to the Senate building of ancient Rome so who knows? As Shakespeare said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” May legend have its roots in historical fact?

Back to articles

Go back