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The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light many problematic political aspects from governments and institutions worldwide. From unjustifiable limitation of freedoms (especially religious freedom) to widespread medical intimidation, this pandemic has certainly delivered a hefty sample of dystopia.
The aftermath is still unfolding, but in the land of art par excellence, an interesting byproduct of the pestiferous season was the springtide of religious iconographic artwork associated with the coronavirus.
This trend is particularly exemplified by the emergence of "Our Lady of COVID," in which the Virgin Mary is depicted as donning a surgical mask.
The first work of its kind was spotted in the Tuscan town of Massa Carrara, carved by master sculptor Angelo Dentoni, who made a bas-relief of the Virgin Mary wearing a face mask. His pupil, Andrea Lugarini, explained how the inspiration for the artwork struck the atelier:
We'd often talk about the pandemic, playfully appealing to "Our Lady of COVID." We frequently sculpt many images of Mary in marble; our town is full of representations of Mary, with different names, purposes, aspects. ... There's one for every single thing, why shouldn't there be an "Our Lady of COVID" bringing a message of hope, a protective auspicious image?
Lugarini believes the bas-relief "embodies the need of protection spread out across the country during the lockdown."
About the popular reaction to the relief, Lugarini said the artists "didn't really expect this clamor. Certainly, the attention our work has received comes from every man's necessity to hold on to faith and to Mary during the storms of life."
At the end of June, weekly Catholic magazine Maria Con Te ("Mary with you") dedicated a cover to Angelo Dentoni's piece. In the interview, Dentoni declares that his "Lady of COVID was inspired by a need of solace."
The magazine states that "the Marian icon inspired by the pandemics encloses in itself a message of hope and symbolizes closeness to Our Lady." Pupil Andrea Lugarini revealed to the magazine that the studio would like to donate the piece to the local hospital.
Another icon of the Virgin Mary that gained notoriety is a painting from young Venetian artist Maria Terzi. The painting portrays both Jesus and Mary wearing surgical masks. The painting was deliberately hung in a wall of a sotoportego (a passageway underneath a building — a typical Venetian architectural element) called Sotoportego della Peste ("Sotoportego of the Plague"), in Venice.
These passageways often feature images of the Virgin Mary, and according to the local tradition, the Marian icons in the Sotoportego della Peste blocked the spread of the plague in the zone in 1630.
According to the story, a pious woman named Giovanna had a vision of the Blessed Virgin announcing that the only way to defeat the plague would be to have the residents of the zone commission a painting of Our Lady with St. Roch, St. Sebastian and St. Justina, and hang it on the sotoportego's wall.
The locals promptly obeyed, as popular belief was that in order to infect the inhabitants, the plague had to pass through the sotoportego, where it would be stopped by the Mother of God. Not only was the neighborhood around the passageway miraculously spared from the plague, the disease suddenly vanished from the entire city of Venice.
The caption of a video of the painting hanging in the sotoportego stated, "From the terrible pestilences of the past to the most modern pandemics of the new millennium, we Venetians are again united in pleading protection for our city."
About this particular motif in Catholic iconography, popular Catholic website Messainlatino observed: "Notwithstanding the good intentions which underlie these works, we consider it inappropriate to put a mask on the Most Blessed Virgin Mary. Maybe it'd have been enough to inscribe the works with the litany salus infirmorum [salvation of the sick]."
Church Militant also reached out to Italian Catholic painter Giovanni Gasparro (one of the most celebrated contemporary artists of his generation, whose astonishing religious paintings are known for their reverence and expressive beauty).
Gasparro replied: "Irrespective of whether these are sacred art paintings or bas-reliefs, destined to places of worship or simply fruit of religious inspiration, I consider it improper to use the image of the Mother of God for any purpose other than devotional and liturgical."
Gasparro labeled it a "pointless manipulation, if not a blasphemous provocation" to depict Our Lady with the anti-COVID mask.
According to Gasparro, "We must lose the custom to desecrate — in the etymological sense of the term — that which is most sacred, regardless of the finality, which can be more or less noble. If not for anything else, it's a matter of respect."