I first read about the Holy Bambino statue in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli when I was researching nativity scenes in Rome. Before Christmas I went to the Capitoline hill to see the jewel-encrusted wooden statue of the infant Jesus in its chapel and discovered the miraculous events associated with it.
The original statue dated back to the fifteenth century, and was carved out of wood from an olive tree in Jerusalem’s garden of Gethsemane by a Franciscan friar while he was in the Holy Land, according to the church’s information. Unfortunately it was stolen in 1994 and is yet to be recovered. A copy has replaced the original, carved out of similar wood.
According to legends, the case containing the original statue was thrown overboard during a severe storm on the friar’s return trip to Rome but it miraculously arrived in the port of Livorno behind his ship. Ever since, the figure has been venerated in Rome, particularly around Christmas time, and sick or troubled people have turned to it for help, believing it has healing powers and adorning it with precious votive offerings. There is one local story of a noble Roman lady who stole the statue at the end of the eighteenth century and kept it in her home, but the statue reportedly left her house by itself and returned to its place in the church. The original has not come back since its most recent theft though.
When I visited the basilica, I saw that people were leaving prayer notes to the statue, and I was interested to see the related celebrations held around Christmas time.
So on the night of Epiphany (January 6), I returned to Santa Maria in Aracoeli. When I arrived in the early evening, the church looked magical, with its steps lit up by burning torches. According to a medieval legend, the church of “Saint Mary of the Altar of Heaven” was built on the site where the Tiburtine Sibyl met Emperor Augustus and prophesied Jesus Christ’s birth. Previously a temple to the goddess Juno Moneta, the protector of funds, stood here. The first Roman coins were minted at this location, and as a result “moneta” came to mean “mint” and is the source of the word “money”.
Inside the church, where the evening Mass was being held, I saw the Holy Bambino in the nativity scene, where he is placed on Christmas Eve. During the Christmas period a wooden pulpit is set up which children can use to recite poems and prayers to the infant Jesus.
This was the golden carriage he was due to move to for a procession around the Capitoline hill after the Mass.
Here is the moment the procession comes to pick up the statue from the nativity and take it around the Capitoline Hill:
Outside in front of the nearby Campidoglio (Rome’s town hall) there was a live nativity display underway. The Holy Bambino was brought down to the nativity and paraded for the crowds. The lights were preventing a great picture here but this was my best try:
After this, flying red lanterns were lit in the square and we watched them float off above us.
The bambino was then taken back up to the church for the traditional finale, where he is brought out to the top of the steps for an Epiphany blessing of the city of Rome.
This was a fascinating ceremony to watch and worth attending if you are in Rome in January and wish to take part in a local tradition. The bambino can also be visited all-year-round in his side chapel of the church. Just be aware that there are a lot of steps to climb to reach the basilica!