Saving Catholic Artistic Heritage: Via Matris at Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica in Chicago

"Let my eyes run down with tears night and day, and let them not cease,
for the virgin daughter is smitten with a great wound” (Jer 14:17)

Pilgrims who visit the Basilica of Our Lady Sorrows and the National Shrine of St. Peregine in Chicago can have a special joy of praying the Via Matris stations, an ancient Marian devotion of the Church with liturgical practices dating all the way back to the 13th century in the Low Countries, Germany, Spain and Poland. Advocation ‘Our Lady of Sorrows’ also enjoyed particular recognition and acclaim in the 12th century Italy, but the Christian devotion to the Blessed Mother as Our Lady of Sorrows has of course a much older historical and Scriptural origins – the prophesy of Simeon (Luke 2:25-35) being generally acknowledged to be the full articulation of the mystery of the seven swords. Following the liturgical recognition of Our Lady as Our Lady of Sorrows in 1482 (listed in the Roman Missal under the title of Our Lady of Compassion), numerous painted and sculpted images of the Our Lady as the Virgin of Sorrows were crafted and installed in parishes, cathedrals, and chapels across Europe – one of the most notable and instantly recognizable images of this genre is Michelangelo’s Pieta – of which an amazing and incredibly faithful replica carved in 3 tons of Carrara marble is also housed in the Basilica of Our Lady of Sorrows.

The Via Matris in the Chicago Basilica was commissioned in the mid 1930’s to the critically acclaimed and then hugely popular American painter C. Bosseron Chambers. The cycle painted by Chambers consists of seven large canvases, each showing a traditional representation of one of the Seven Sorrows. The Seven Holy Founders of the Servite Order vowed a particular devotion to the sorrowful mysteries from the life of the Virgin. Since the official formation of the Order on August 15 in 1233, Servite Fathers initiated numerous commissions of beautiful Marian art throughout Europe, and so it was natural that a Servite parish church should have been interested in acquiring the Sorrowful stations.

The Via Matris is meant to spiritually and theologically echo and complement the Via Crucis, allowing the faithful to accompany Our Lady in the her sorrows, to unite with her spiritually, to draw lessons and encouragement from her fortitude, and to ripen the heart for the Via Crucis. The Via Matris is meant to be prayed, meditated, and walked and for this reason the paintings are distributed along the nave (shown on the photo above) – to allow the faithful to walk from station to station and spend time in meditation of both the Scriptural passages and accompanying images. The paintings are located slightly above eye level and about one story beneath the monumental carved stations of the cross, so that the praying pilgrim might glance upwards every now and then and unite, through the suffering of the Mother with the sufferings of the Son.

In Chicago itself, a pious practice of the Via Matris definitely preceded installation of the paintings. On Friday January 8, 1937, Rev. James M. Keane, OSM started public prayer along the Via Matris in the Basilica. The devotion took deep roots and for many years continued every Friday from 7 AM until 10 PM, at brief intervals throughout the day. The faithful were invited to pray the Via Matris for nine successive Fridays and eventually a Perpetual Novena was also established. A bulletin Novena Notes was commenced and printed while the Basilica in Chicago became a center for the propagation of devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows in the United States.

Artistically, C. Bosseron Chambers’ paintings are a significant contribution to the religious art in the United States of the first half of the 20th century and are considered a classic of the genre. Chambers was an internationally recognized artist who studied first in St. Louis, later in the Royal Academy in Berlin and finally in the Royal Academy in Vienna. Chambers was considered a gifted painter, one of the best religious painters of the early 20th century, often compared to Raphael especially on account of the graceful composition characteristic of his paintings. Before arriving in Chicago, the paintings were exhibited in 1939 in New York’s Morgan Galleries where they received hundreds of visitors. Once in Chicago, the Via Matris was first shown to the general public in the showroom of Marshall Fields before being installed permanently at the Basilica of Our Lady of Sorrows.

At present, a Critical Conditions Report for the Via Matris in the Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica is underway. The entire set of paintings needs attention of professional conservators – a basic inspection showed that the pieces require careful cleaning, repairs of canvas and frames, and re-installation that will help stabilize these fragile antiques. Cost of this work is estimated at $50,000. The Basilica Church has undergone major structural repairs in the past ten years and the fund that could have been used for the much-needed maintenance and restoration work of the paintings has been depleted. Nonetheless, the paintings are in dire need of help and the Basilica is beginning a special campaign to save this historic Via Matris. If you would like to contribute to saving Catholic artistic heritage, this restoration is a wonderful opportunity to support a necessary work and a very worthy cause. Please contact Rev. Frank Falco, O.S.M. who is the steward of the artwork in the Basilica at: [email protected] for information. All contributions in any amount will be greatly appreciated!

The usual Via Matris stations:
  • Flight into Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15)
  • Loss of the Child Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:41-50)
  • Our Lady meets Our Lord on the way to Calvary (Luke 23:27-31; John 19:17)
  • Crucifixion (John 19:25-30)
  • Deposition (Psalm 130; Luke 23:50-54; John 19:31-37)
  • Burial (Isaiah 53:8; Luke 23:50-56; John 19:38-42; Mark 15:40-47)

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