I had another beautiful and memorable morning in St. Peter’s Basilica when Fr. Kevin Lixey, a friend of longstanding who heads the office of the Patrons of the Vatican Museums, celebrated Mass at 8 am in one of the many extraordinary chapels of the basilica. My friends Jack and Linda Del Rio were in town to visit their daughter Aubrey who interned for and now works for the Patrons office, and Father offered to say Mass for us in the basilica’s Grotto area today.

I had been to Mass only once before in the Chapel of the Madonna Bocciata but had failed to bring a camera. Today I want to tell you, in words and pictures, the wonderful story of this chapel and the image for which it is named – the “Rejected Madonna.”

The following description comes from a terrific website that everyone who has ever been to the basilica or plans on visiting Vatican City should become familiar with:

I interviewed Alan Howard, the man who put this together several years ago, for Vatican Insider during one of his visits to Rome. He told me at the time that he had offered the page to the Vatican – totally free of charge – and they were not interested! Nothing even remotely like this page – the in-depth detail, the myriad descriptions, the exhaustive research, was on the Vatican’s webpage at the time so this would have been a brilliant move.

Today I happily give him and his website credit for this story that follows (photos by JFL):

In this chapel is a fresco by the 14th century Roman painter Pietro Cavallini. It is called the “Madonna della Bocciata” because of Mary’s swollen face. According to an old legend, her face bled because a drunken soldier had thrown a bowl into the holy image after he lost a game of bowls.

This is the oldest chapel in the area around the sepulchre of Peter. It originates from a very small oratory commissioned by Gregory XIII in 1580. It was created when the new basilica was under construction, under the pavement of the southern transept (Altar of St Joseph), where the sainted Popes Leo I, II, III and IV had been buried.

In about 1592, Pope Clement VIII had the room prolonged and joined to the new peribolos of the grottoes. In ancient Greek and Roman architecture, ‘peribolos’ was a court enclosed by a wall, especially one surrounding a sacred area such as a temple, shrine, or altar.

In 1607, when Pope Paul V moved the relics of the sainted popes to the basilica, the oratory was dedicated to St. Sebastian. Later that year, a mosaic representing the Apostle Paul was found during the demolition of the apse of the old basilica. It was brought to the chapel and placed on the new altar; the chapel was re-dedicated to St Paul.

On 21 February, when Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644) had the present Marian image put in the altar, the chapel was given the new name Bocciata. The painting is a fragment of a medieval fresco framed in Cosmatesque marble elements. It was once believed to be the work of Simone Martini, but now it is generally attributed to Pietro Cavallini (1273-1321) or his workshop.


The majestic and solemn Madonna (once probably enthroned) directs her intense gaze onto the spectator as she turns slightly to the Child on her lap, who she holds with her left hand and presents with the right one. The Child imparts His blessing as He looks down at the figure of the commissioner of the work, now missing, whose one extended arm can still be seen.

The image was originally located in the portico of the old basilica, between the Ravenna Door and the Door of the Dead (to the south). It became famous after a miraculous event in 1440, according to the testimony collected by Nikolaus Muffel from the court of Emperor Frederic II in 1453. A drunken soldier, in a bout of anger for the florins he lost in a game, in a sacrilegious gesture hurled a stone or ball at the Virgin’s face. The lesion is still visible on her left cheek. Drops of blood appeared on the image and fell down onto the stone paving (those stones are behind metal grates to the right and left of the altar – see photos below).

During the restoration of the portico in 1574, Pope Gregory XIII had the image removed and taken to the secretarium of the Basilica. In 1608, when the ancient building was demolished, the image was placed in the peribolos of the grottoes. It was the object of great veneration and became even more so in its present location dating from 1636.

As recorded in the inscription to the right from the altar, attached to the wall and protected by iron grates, to the sides from the image of the Madonna there are two stones from the ancient paving of the portico, where, according to tradition, the miraculous blood fell. Their surface has been worn away by the touches of the faithful.

Numerous ancient monuments used to be preserved in this chapel but during the restoration described above, it was simplified and the walls were whitewashed. During the thorough restoration of 2002, the paintings on the vault and on the walls below were given their original splendor. They were painted between 1618 and September 18, 1619, by Giovan Battista Ricci da Novara.

To the right, on the upper level of the wall, is a series of images commissioned by Paul V. They preserve the memory of the monuments of the old basilica that had been demolished some 12 years earlier. The series continues in the next chapel of the Madonna of Partorienti (Our Lady of Pregnant Women). Today, several centuries later, the paintings are of enormous interest and paramount historical importance.

Close to the entrance is The View of the Buildings in front of the Old Basilica. The represented buildings are recorded in the Latin inscriptions engraved on small marble plates below the painting. Starting from the right is: the facade of the Apostolic Palace of Paul II; the bell tower of Leo IV and Loggia for the Blessings of Alexander VI; the mosaic of the Savior on the facade; the Oratory of St Mary in Turri of Paul I; the palace of the Archpriest of Leo III.

In the next span is The View of the Oratory of John VII. In a style typical of the 17th Century, the fresco represents two walls of the ancient oratory that survived until 1608. It was decorated with 25 mosaic panels from 705-707 and it protected the medieval ciborium with the relic of the Holy Veil. The inscription says:

The oratory of the Holy Veil of Veronica
and of the Virgin Mother of God
built by John VII

This is an exact copy of the original by Ricci, made in 1949, when the deteriorating fresco was transferred onto canvas and placed on the opposite wall. The inscription below, dated 1609, comes from a different place and refers to another fresco of the oratory that no longer exists.

In the center of the vault are two episodes from the “Stories of the Confession.” Ricci inserted the frescoes in an older decoration and superimposed layers of paint are visible in some areas. The panel close to the altar represents St. Servatius, the Bishop of Tongres. In the middle of the 4th century, Servatius came on a pilgrimage to Rome. As the inscription indicates, he was praying at the tomb and received a prophetic message from Peter concerning the future of his Church.

In the other panel is St Amand, the Bishop of Maastricht, who according to tradition, received the order from St Peter to go and preach the Gospel in Gaul (the 7th century).


On the left wall, in a lunette close to the altar, was the now lost painting of the ancient altar of St Anthony the Abbot. Still to be seen, instead, is the redone ancient mosaic of St Paul, originally from the apsidal decoration of Innocent III. To the right, still in its original location, is Ricci’s fresco transferred onto canvas of the View of the Old Basilica.

At the entrance to the chapel (was) the simple sarcophagus of Cardinal Joseph Beran who died in exile in Rome in 1969. It was the wish of Paul VI that the Cardinal be buried here.

(JFL: CARDINAL BERAN TO BE RE-BURIED IN CZECH REPUBLIC (Prague Radio – English edition – January 4, 2018) – Pope Francis has given his consent to the transport of the remains of Cardinal Josef Beran to the Czech Republic, the ambassador to the Holy See Pavel Vošalík told the Czech News Agency on Wednesday. Cardinal Beran was persecuted by the Communist regime and was eventually exiled to Rome, where he died in 1969. He was buried in the Vatican because the Czechoslovak communist authorities didn’t approve the return of his body to his homeland. He is the only Czech buried in the crypt of St Peter’s Basilica.

Cardinal Beran, who died May 17, 1969, served as the archbishop of Prague from 1946 until his death and was elevated into the cardinalate in 1965. His cause of canonization commenced in 1997 and this bestowed upon him the title of Servant of God.

The remains of Cardinal Josef Beran were welcomed in Prague on April 20, 2018 and a day later transferred to the cathedral during a solemn Mass in commemoration of St. Adalbert.)

For more than 3 centuries, from 1616 to 1949, the marble statue of St Peter enthroned was on display in this chapel, together with other precious monuments. Still visible, is the fake baldacchino and an inscription on the vault.

On the right wall, in the vicinity of the altar, is a fragment of a Latin inscription from 732 with a relative explanatory plaque. It quotes one part of the decree of the synod of the Roman clergy held in front of the Confession of St Peter. Pope Gregory III had the text engraved on marble slabs. It established the cult of All Saints and of their numerous relics preserved in the Vatican basilica, to be held in the oratory founded by the pope himself. The text starts with the words (PE)TRO THEOPHANIO and lists the names of all the church dignitaries present at the synod, including the Deacon Zachary who succeeded Gregory III as Pope (741).

To the right from the entrance is a marble fragment from the old basilica: the facade of the tabernacle made by Cardinal Lorenzo Cybo, the nephew of Innocent VIII, to hold the relic of the Holy Lance (1495). The work is attributed to the workshop of Andrea Bregno.

The bas-relief represents two praying angels, dressed in flowing garments and spreading their wings. They are standing at the sides of a slightly open door on which is represented the spear and the sponge of the Passion of Christ. In the lunette above, under the starry paneled vault, is the image of Christ Victima, rising from the sepulchre while two heads of cherubs crown the upper corners.