The picture of Our Mother of Good Counsel is familiar to all who frequent the churches of the Augustinian friars. With them and their people it has a place of special honor. The original, the miraculous picture, has been in the reverent keeping of the members of the Order of Saint Augustine for over four hundred years. The church that enshrines the original fresco of Our Mother of Good Counsel is located in the small town of Genazzano, Italy.
Legend has it that this church stood unfinished and roofless when, on 25 April 1467, the image of the Madonna was miraculously transported there from its former home in Scutari, Albania. Coming to rest precariously on a narrow stone ledge in the wall inside the church, the legend continues, the picture has remained in that position to the present day.
The name, however, is much older than the picture. “Saint Mary of Good Counsel” was the name given to a beautiful little church erected in the fifth century on the ruins of a temple of Venus in ancient Latium. But time took its toll on the church. It was almost a ruin in 1356, when the Augustinian friars were charged with its care and restoration. The task might have been hopeless if Mary herself had not come with her heavenly image in 1467. She seemed determined to confirm and perpetuate her favorite title, “Mother of Good Counsel.”
Careful investigations undertaken between 1957 and 1959 for the purpose of restoration have revealed something of the true origin of the fresco. The image of the Madonna about 12 inches wide and 17 inches high that the viewer today sees encased in an elaborate glass, metal, and marble framework is part of a larger fresco that once covered a portion of the wall now hidden by the baroque shrine altar. Art experts consulted during the restoration suggest that the fresco, including the image of the Madonna, is the work of the early fifteenth century artist Gentile da Fabriano. He probably painted his fresco on the wall around the time of Martin V (1417-1431). At some subsequent date before 1467, the fresco, so it is surmised on the basis of the evidence, was covered over with plaster, and on the wall was hung a terracotta image of the Madonna which was known as Our Mother of Good Counsel.
In 1467 the Augustinian friars began rebuilding the church on the site, enclosing within the structure the wall on which the then covered fresco was painted. This work was sponsored by a widow named Petruccia, who exhausted her means on the project and was unable to continue the construction. At that point the image of the Madonna appeared and was taken to be a token of divine favor. The unexpected appearance was perhaps brought about in this way: when the stone ledge was being inserted into the wall, the plaster covering cracked and separated from the wall, revealing the fresco beneath. The image was initially hailed as the Madonna of Paradise, an allusion to its apparently heavenly origin, but soon it came to be known by the former title of the shrine, Madonna of Good Counsel.
The unfinished church was completed soon after this occurrence and became the center of continuous pilgrimage. A place was also built for the Augustinian friars, who to this day still minister to the spiritual wants of the thousands that come to venerate the picture of the Mother of Good Counsel. The story of the picture spread far and wide; many came to pray at this shrine. The numerous cures recorded as having occurred since then have caused the picture of the Madonna to be called miraculous.
One striking aspect of the fresco, which has lent a certain credence to the legends surrounding it, is that the upper portion of the image is separated from the wall so that much of the fresco is just a thin sheet of plaster. Yet the image of Our Lady of Good Counsel has survived for centuries in this precarious state, through the rebuilding of the main walls of the church, through a number of earthquakes, and even through the aerial bombardment of Genazzano during World War II. Because of this condition, the restoration undertaken in 1957 was a delicate task.
There arose a legend that the picture had come from Albania, many miles across the Adriatic Sea. Among the first pilgrims who came to Genazzano were two men with a very remarkable story to tell. While praying at a shrine of Our Lady in the Albanian town of Scutari they saw the picture which they were venerating remove itself from the wall of the church. They watched in amazement as it rose into the air. High in the sky it was wrapped in a cloud and vanished from their sight in the direction of the Adriatic and Italy.
They tried to follow the image. They searched everywhere for it, in all the famous shrines and churches of Rome and other cities. Finally they heard rumors of a new picture at Genazzano. They hurried there and at last found the object of their quest, their own beloved holy picture. At Scutari it had been loved and revered for many centuries; then the ardor of the people toward it had cooled.
In their very early endeavors the good friars were ably assisted in their efforts by the gracious aid of a holy widow, Petruccia di Nocera. Since her husband’s death, this saintly woman, a tertiary of the Order of Saint Augustine, had devoted herself to the service of the little church, and great was her distress over the neglected condition in which the sanctuary of Our Mother of Good Counsel was permitted to remain. To restore it was the ambition of her life, and so strongly was she drawn to the undertaking that she felt inspired to sacrifice her home and moderate income to further this cause. While others might have felt daunted, Petruccia never once faltered in her hopes. She constantly reiterated her assurance that the work would be completed because Almighty God, through the intercession of Saint Augustine and the Blessed Virgin, would see fit to crown her feeble efforts with unforeseen success.
Petruccia, having lived to see her fondest hopes abundantly realized, died in 1470, honored by all. The Augustinians who owed so much to this good tertiary laid her body to rest at the feet of the beloved Madonna, with an inscription above which told of her share in the great work accomplished by God at Genazzano.
Our Mother of Good Counsel has been called the Madonna of the popes. In truth, since the arrival of the picture, there is scarcely a pope who has not in some way shown great devotion to her. The initial approval of the devotion to Our Mother of Good Counsel was given by Pope Paul II. In 1753 Pope Benedict XIV established the Pious Union of Our Lady of Good Counsel, a spiritual society to which many indulgences were attached. Pope Pius IX had a personal devotion to Our Mother of Good Counsel; he made a pilgrimage to Genazzano in 1864.
More than any other pope, Pope Leo XIII, himself a member of the Pious Union, was deeply attached to this devotion, which had associations with his childhood in Carpineto, a town not far from Genazzano. He instituted the white scapular of Good Counsel, inserted the title Mother of Good Counsel into the Litany of Loreto, declared the shrine a minor basilica, and installed a copy of the image over the altar in the Pauline chapel in the Vatican. It was he who coined the phrase: “Children, follow her counsels.” Pope Pius XII dedicated his reign to Our Mother of Good Counsel, and Pope John XXIII made a visit to her shrine in 1959.
The Augustinians have been at all times the outstanding promoters of the devotion to Our Mother of Good Counsel. Within the last century there have been two holy men of the Order who were particularly notable for their zeal in spreading this devotion. Blessed Stephen Bellesini was pastor at the shrine and is buried in a side chapel of the church, and Venerable Joseph Menochio was papal sacristan to Pope Pius VII.
Thus, for five hundred years, the devotion to Our Mother of Good Counsel has flourished and grown. Great artists have fashioned rich copies of the Madonna in canvas, stone, and mosaic. One will find the picture of Our Mother of Good Counsel in beautiful shrines and in great cathedrals and churches. Missionaries have carried it to the ends of the earth, and it has found its way into the humblest of homes throughout the world.
The feast of Our Mother of Good Counsel is celebrated by the Augustinian Family on 26 April.