Seven Holy Founders Altar in the Basilica of Our Lady of Sorrows in Chicago

On February 17 Church celebrates feast of the Seven Holy Founders of the Ordo Fratrum Servorum Sanctae Mariae. First Servites were a group of affluent Florentine merchants who under strong Marian inspiration left the world to devote themselves to the life of prayer and penance. The Order was founded in 1233 near Florence. Its Founders - Buonfiglio dei Monaldi (Bonfilius), Giovanni di Buonagiunta (Bonajuncta), Amadeus of the Amidei (Bartolomeus), Ricovero dei Lippi-Ugguccioni (Hugh), Benedetto dell’ Antella (Manettus), Gherardino di Sostegno (Sostene), and Alessio de’ Falconieri (Alexius) - were canonized by Pope Leo XIII in 1888. Dates of deaths of the Seven remain obscure, but in 1649 during a renovation in the chapel on Monte Senario, physical site where the group began their community life, remains of seven bodies were recovered under an altar. Relics of the saints were hence enshrined and are currently reposed in a dedicated chapel in Monte Senario Monastery.

Since 1931, Chicago’s Basilica of Our Lady of Sorrows houses an outstanding Marian altar in the east transept. It presents a sight you do not want to miss should you ever make a pilgrimage here - an altarpiece as majestic as it is intimate – an especially successful rendition of what a Marian apparition might be. This is the altar of the Seven Holy Founders for the Servite USA Province and the iconography captures the moment Our Lady appears to the group of the holy men and asks them to found a community.

As is very often the case with artwork in churches, no records can be found about the artists and / or workshop who crafted this marvelous altar but we know that it came from the north of Italy to the United Sates around 1930 and was donated by a married couple and a lady actively involved in the Chicago Basilica, possibly through the Altar Society.

Holy Founders Altarpiece is outstanding for its superb pairing of color and material, It is crafted in an array of marbles: Carrara, Verona, and Brecca Violetta as well as Venetian mosaic, and even an unexpected detailing in ivory. The arrangement is strongly architectural with its prominent structure, concave profile, and columns. Gravity and heaviness of what we sense is a heavy marble composition is equipoised by curvatures of the outer arms of the altarpiece and vibrant jewel tones used in its central image – in the garment and nimbus of Our Lady. With the lovely image of the Virgin, we have the dramatic presentation of a group of seven men in prayer gathered at her feet. Angels in a variety of sizes surmount the altarpiece, flank Our Lady, and peek from under the cloud on which she floats. The transition from the earthly reality of devotion and petition to the heavenly realm of vision and glory is effortless here.

The altarpiece is stately yet also entirely charming. It embodies the best in what religious artwork can be – well-crafted in precious enduring materials, thoughtfully designed; the representation easily read yet not tedious – a Virgin with the Seven Men in prayer; the entire composition breathes a special life, a vision, a hopefulness, a memory of a blessed event that informed centuries of prayer and dedication, and continues to inspire even now.

The Altar of the Virgin and the Seven Holy Founders in the Basilica of Our Lady of Sorrows in Chicago was dedicated on February 17, 1931 - exactly 89 years ago today.

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