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The way is long--- thro weary wastes, it passes,

Thro’ deserts without water, without shade;
Across green marshes, treacherous morasses,
It stretches, till the pilgrim grows afraid,
For unknown peril, all the known, surpasses,
And none can say where hangs the ambuscade.
Our Lady of the Way, whate’er betide,
Madonna della Strada, be our guide!


- Eleanor C. Donnelly

The original of the Madonna of the Wayside is one of the most ancient of the publicly venerated portraits of the Virgin Mary in Rome.  The origin of the painting is unknown, but it bears the marks of the earliest ages of the Church.  Experts who have examined the original refer it to the earliest part of the fifth century at the latest.  There are only four or five paintings of like antiquity in existence.  Tradition dates it to the period immediately following the reign of Constantine. 

The picture represents the Mother holding the Divine Child on the left arm. The Child has Its right arm raised to bless, and carries a closed book in Its left hand.  The profiles have none of the sharp Byzantine characteristics, but are purely Roman, which has led some experts to date them to the time prior to that of the early iconoclastic persecutions, which occasioned the removal from the East to Rome of many venerable works of art. 

The first building in which the painting was placed for public veneration is said to have been built by the Astalli family, moved by the veneration of the people for the wayside Shrine, it was the favorite place for meditation of St. Ignatius and his fellow founders of the Society of Jesus.  So much did he become attached to the picture that he asked the parish priest of the Shrine to give it to him for the first church given to his new order.  At first the pastor refused, but finally gave not only the picture, but the church in which it stood, and became himself the first Italian member of the Jesuit Order.


With the consent of the Astalli family and Pope Paul III., the picture became the property of the Society, and was afterward transferred to the larger Church of St. Mark.  Before it the rule of St. Ignatius was adopted and SS. Francis Xavier, Stanislaus Kosta, Aloysius Gonzaga, Philip Neri, Charles Borromeo, Francis de Sales, and others took their vows. 

In 1568, aided by Cardinal Farnesi, Francis Borgia, Father-General of the Jesuits, built the Church of the Gesu as a Shrine for the Madonna.  In 1575, the picture was transferred there, the entire section of the wall having been cut out for that purpose, and placed in a chapel prepared for it.  It is in this chapel that the candidates for admission to the Jesuit Order in Rome take their vows.  Mrs. Elizabeth Washburn Brainard, of Boston, painted a copy of this famous picture for the Immaculate Conception Church, Boston, Rev. T. S. Brosnahan, S.J., rector.


Robed in a mantle azure blue,
Her starry eyes of a darker hue
Lit by their love-light tender,
Sits the young Mother, sweet and fair,
A jeweled crown on her golden hair,
Clasping the Babe with a worship rare,
Greater than speech can render.


Fastening the mantle's silken fold,
Upon her bosom a star of gold
Beams with a lustrous splendor;
A fitting emblem, Sweet, of thee,
The shining Star of life s stormy sea
When our frail barks ’neath the tempest flee,
Gleaming more bright and tender.

Her clear, soft eyes gaze patiently,
As those of one who does not see
The things that lie before her;
But as if the future unveiled lay,
And the years long vista stretched away,
Till faint and far that dreadful day
On Calvary loomed o’er her.

Tender and sad those gentle eyes,
Their clear, calm depths, like the morning skies,
By that dread vision clouded;
Yet loving, meek, and patient still
Resigned to her Heavenly Father’s will,
Although she knew the worst of ill,
That the future no more shrouded.

The child is seated on her knee,
One little hand raised warningly,
A volume in the other;
A ray of wisdom and of grace,
Sent from His Father’s dwelling place,
Illumes the fair and childish face
Turned fondly toward His Mother.

O sweet young Mother!  Holy Child!
Madonna fair and undefiled,
Mary forget me never,
When tempests rage o’er Life’s wild sea,
And when I know not where to flee
Shine down, bright Star, on mine and me,
Be thou my light forever!


-Lillian B. Taylor.

The Ministries of St Ignatius 
and the first Companions 
in the Church of Our Lady of the Way, Rome
Engraving by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

Our Lady of the Way

 Late medieval mural
 Church of the Gesù, Rome

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