Filippo Balbi (1806-1890)
Madonna of Loreto
1846-1850, 1854
oil on canvas
Vatican Pinacoteca, Inv. 41486

General Description

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 nineteenth 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.

Litanies - A Form of Marian Devotion

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 liturgy. In 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.

Modern Invocations

The 1587 version of the Litany of Loreto was subsequently enriched with new advocations:

1675 Queen of the most Holy Rosary (for the confraternities of the Holy Rosary).
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

Mary's Holiness

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 as Virgin.

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
(Wisdom 7:6)
(1 Kings 10:18-20)
(Esther 10:10; Luke 1:44)
(2 Timothy 21)
(2 Timothy 21)
(Proverbs 25:4)
(Sirach 24:14; 39:13; 50:8)
(Song of Songs 4:4)
(Song of Songs 7:5)
(1 Kings 6:20-22)
(Psalm 132:8)
(Psalm 78:23)
(Revelation 22:16)

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 thirteen titles referring to Mary as Queen.

For more information:

For more information on the symbols see 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.

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