Pope Francis’s favourite artwork has recently undergone a makeover. The director of the Vatican Museums Barbara Jatta recently revealed photographs of the newly restored Salus Populi Romani, or “Protectress of the Roman People,” a Byzantine-style painting depicting the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus that is said to hold a special place in the Pope’s heart.
Francis famously prayed before the icon, which is housed in Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore, the morning after he was officially elected the head of the Catholic Church. As a cardinal and bishop, he would also regularly visit the painting when in town. Now, the first Latin-American pope leaves a bouquet of white roses at the Salus before and after every trip abroad. According to Jatta, the restoration returned the vivid colours of the child Jesus’ golden robe and the blue of Mary’s mantle back to their original splendour.
She also disclosed that the renovations will aid experts in successfully dating the painting, whose origins are hotly debated among scholars. Some believe Salus is the work of St. Luke himself and can be traced back to the 5th century; others claim it most likely was completed in the 11th and 13th century. Restorers also built a lighter showcase equipped with handles to transport the painting safely to the various religious celebrations where it’s exhibited. Repairs to problems caused by previous restorations were made too.
The work has long been a favourite of several popes. In 593, Pope Gregory carried the icon throughout the streets of Rome and prayed for the end of the Black Plague. Pope Pius XII, meanwhile, celebrated his first Holy Mass in front of the icon in 1899. Pope John Paul II also featured a copy of the painting during World Youth Day 2000.