The title “Madonna of Loreto” refers to the famous Italian shrine in
honor of Our Lady, and which is known since the late thirteenth century (1291-94).
According to pious tradition the Holy House, where the Word became flesh,
arrived on the hill of Loreto “by the hands of angels.” A special type of
prayer called Litanies is associated with this sanctuary. For this reason,
the painting Madonna of Loreto is also called Virgin of the Litanies.
The basic iconographical theme of Balbi’s painting is that of the
Annunciation. Praying, with crossed hands and downcast eyes, Mary suggests
an attitude of serene but intense listening and receptiveness. The dove
hovering above her person is the symbol of the Holy Spirit “overshadowing”
her person. She holds a half-closed book in her right hand which is typical
of many representations of her Annunciation, and a sign of wisdom. Mary is
called Seat of Wisdom.
What gives the painting its name is the garland of flowers surrounding
the person of Mary. It is adorned with a long ribbon. On the bow at the
bottom, one can see the signature of the artist. On the ribbon, written in
cursive letters, are the forty-five praises or invocations of the litanies
of Loreto. They are displayed in groups of three, in Italian, and are
interspersed with lilies, roses, primroses, pansies, forget-me-nots,
gentians, and narcissus. They symbolize purity (lily) and love (rose), but
also humility (various wildflowers) and eternal life (narcissus).
The Virgin of Litanies was painted between 1846 and 1850. The invocation
“Queen conceived without original sin” was added in 1854, date of the solemn
definition of Mary’s Immaculate Conception by Pius IX. The painting is
stylistically a reflection of Italian purism of the first half of the
century. However, Filippo Balbi overcomes formal academism thanks to his
sweet and vivid imagery conveying a warm romantic feeling. Balbi was born in
Naples in 1806, was mainly active in Roman religious circles between
1850-1865, and died in 1890 in Alatri. A student of neoclassic portraitism
(C. Angelini), he is known for his frescoes for the charterhouse of Trisulti
and for San Paolo fuori le Mura in Rome.
The forty-five invocations in Italian of the Litanies of the Virgin are
an important record of the evolution and transformation of this form of
devotion. Here are some pointers for a better understanding of the litanies
in honor of Our Lady.
Litanies in the West
In the Eastern Church, litanies are an integral part of the official
the liturgy of the Western Church the word litany is derived from litania,
meaning prayer of invocation or intercession. It also meant, up to the twelfth
century, a procession with intercessory character, also known under the
designation of "rogation." Speaking of litanies in the classical sense, the
Church has approved for official use the following ones: the Litanies of All
Saints, probably the oldest, the Litanies of the Names of Jesus (1886), the
Litanies of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (1899), as well as those in honor of
Saint Joseph (1909) and the Precious Blood (1960).
Litanies of Loreto
The only thus approved Marian litany is that of Loreto. The Litanies of
Loreto, so called because of their use in the sanctuary of Loreto since at
least as far back as 1531, were officially approved in 1587 by Pope Sixtus
V. Its origin is believed to be a medieval rimed litany (see Paris
manuscript Nat. lat. 5267, fol., 80r) influenced by Eastern Marian devotion,
in particular by the famous Hymnos Akasthistos. Contrasting with the
older Litany of All Saints, the Loreto Litanies are purely ad- or
invocational litanies. However, as can be observed, for example, in the so-called Officia Mariana, many more Marian litanies were and are in use
but destined for private devotion.
The 1587 version of the Litany of Loreto was subsequently enriched with
1675 Queen of the most Holy Rosary (for the confraternities of the Holy
1883 Queen conceived without original sin (Leo XIII for the whole church)
1903 Mother of Good Council (Leo XIII)
1917 Queen of Peace (Benedict XV)
1950 Queen assumed into Heaven (Pius XII)
1980 Mother of the Church (John Paul II)
1995 Queen of Families (John Paul II)
Composition and Meaning of the Litanies of Loreto
Three introductory advocations highlighting Mary's sanctity as
person (Sancta Maria), her role as mother of Jesus Christ (Sancta Dei
Genitrix), and her vocation as virgin (Sancta Virgo Virginum). Mary's
sanctity is stressed.
Mary, the Mother
Twelve advocations referring to Mary as Mother.
Mary, the Virgin
The advocations of Mary Mother are followed by six titles extolling her
Symbols of Mary (see origin in)
1. Mirror of Justice
2. Seat of Wisdom
3. Cause of Our Joy
4. Spiritual Vessel
5. Vessel of Honor
6. Singular Vessel of Devotion
7. Mystical Rose
8. Tower of David
9. Tower of Ivory
10. House of Gold
11. Ark of the Covenant
12. Gate of Heaven
13. Morning Star
(1 Kings 10:18-20)
(Esther 10:10; Luke 1:44)
(2 Timothy 21)
(2 Timothy 21)
(Sirach 24:14; 39:13; 50:8)
(Song of Songs 4:4)
(Song of Songs 7:5)
(1 Kings 6:20-22)
Mary, the Helper
The group of four advocations that follows extol Mary's role as advocate
for spiritual and corporal works of mercy.
Mary, the Queen
The last part of the Marian advocations is composed of a series of
titles referring to Mary as Queen.
For more information:
For more information on the
The Mary Page:
For more information on Loreto, see the
Dictionary of Mary,
pp. 258 ff.
Consult the exhibit catalog:
The Mother of God: Art
Celebrates Mary, pp. 104-107.