The Trauma of the Madonna della Bocciata

The painting "Madonna della Bocciata" at the Vatican is badly damaged, but we need to see a message in her wound.

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Beneath the papal altar in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, among the grottos and tombs, is the chapel of the Madonna della Bocciata. Inspiring. Revered. But often overlooked. 

Few of the five million annual Vatican visitors venture down the steps to tour the grottos, and of those that do, many miss the fresco of the Madonna placed there in the 1600s. Painted by Pietro Cavallini (c. 1250-1330), it was originally part of a larger fresco believed to include Sts. Peter, Paul, and Theodore. In this fragment, Mary holds the infant Jesus on her lap, supported with her left hand while her right hand perhaps is beginning to reach out toward the viewer. Time and technique (frescos are painted directly onto wet plaster) make the image appear faded, primitive, and humble, lacking the brilliance and clarity of other Vatican art treasures. But it is beautiful in its sacred simplicity.  

In 1440, a drunk soldier, supposedly angered by his losses in a game of bocci, hurled a wooden ball at the Virgin’s face, damaging her right cheek—hence the name Madonna della Bocciata. Tradition holds that drops of blood fell from the image and onto the stone floor, the stones since worn down by the adoring touch of many visitors. 

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The Madonna fresco lacks the fame of Michelangelo’s Pieta masterpiece. Located at an altar on the right as you first enter the basilica, the Pieta attracts huge crowds pressing for a picture of the sculpture where Mary appears serene as she looks down at the limp body of Jesus. In 1972, a hammer-wielding vandal damaged the Pieta. Restoration work began quickly, yet tiny cracks remain from the repairs. Separated by a wall of bulletproof glass and rails, however, we can no longer get close enough to see her scars. 

But the damage to the Madonna della Bocciata fresco was never repaired. Most of her right cheek remains visibly bruised. Her intense gaze, aimed directly at the viewer, does not evoke that same serenity as the Pieta. The Madonna’s eyes appear solemn, piercing. One wonders if Cavallini’s paintbrush was guided by the Holy Spirit, knowing future viewers may feel uncomfortable by her wounds, much like we avert eye contact with someone whose face is badly scarred. But we cannot turn away from this image; it is as if she is calling to us: “I understand your hurt, I have felt it too.”

Thus, we are compelled to return the gaze. Her wounds are best embraced as a powerful metaphorical lesson on how trauma affects our own lives for better or worse.  

A traumatic event is a threat to life and limb, financial ruin, divorce, a fatal diagnosis, the death of a dearly loved one, war, fire, brutal assault, or chronic abuse. The trauma can be sudden and unexpected, or it can be caused by our own hand through vice and sin. 

Seventy percent of the population experience trauma, of which about 20 percent will have substantial emotional reactions. Ten percent develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with debilitating symptoms of hyper-alertness, nightmares, broken relationships, isolation, emotional numbing, an inability to feel close to another, insomnia, mood swings (anger, anxiety, depression), and suicidal thoughts. 

For some trauma survivors, the physical scars are visible from the wounds of battle. 

But the scars of trauma may also be invisible, carved deeply into our inner thoughts and emotions, multiplied and magnified by our guilt and grieving, rehearsed incessantly as we replay the painful memories of our trauma, feeling shame as we repeatedly dissect the trauma asking “why?” and ending up with no answers. Although we may feel we cannot escape this prison of irreconcilable pain, in fact, each of us lives with a self-imposed sentence, acting as our own prosecutor, judge, jury, and jail guard. 

With PTSD, we may be moved to anger or condemnation at our attackers. Like Job’s wife, we may “curse God” with rebellious blame. We condemn ourselves with shame. We fixate on the impossible wish for a different yesterday. Through this internal dialogue, we heap even more trauma on ourselves, believing God made a mistake when we were created, judging ourselves as unforgivable, irrepairable, with wounds beyond the healing power of God. This obsessive arrogance of self-pity derails any hope for a better tomorrow. 

We may channel the distressed words of the lame man at the pool of Bethesda just before Jesus healed him (John 5:7); or Elijah cowering in a cave, exhausted, depressed, and wishing to die (1 Kings 19). Each felt the emotional and spiritual exhaustion of trauma. 

Trauma is real, and prolonged reactions are real. But we do not have to let them destroy us. Eventually, if we are to heal, we will need to accept that what has happened has happened. We cannot unset the sun. But we can change how we think, feel, and react to the trauma. 

Because I work as a psychologist with veterans struggling with PTSD, I have wondered what caused the soldier to lash out at the Madonna. There must be more to it than just writing him off as a drunken soldier. Anger is often the voice of pain. The life of a soldier in the 15th century was harsh. Did he join the army to escape poverty? Was he forced into service against his will? Had he been given the lash for his own misbehaviors? I say this not to excuse him, but I suspect his anger was simmering long before that moment. 

Before the game, perhaps he prayed to win and then profaned God when he lost. Guided by his inner rage did he aim for the infant Jesus, miss, and strike Mary’s face instead—as if she took the blow for her son? When he sobered up, did he repent, feel ashamed, or remain angry and blaming? 

Similarly, what do we do after we harm another or have been harmed? Do we lash out at others, at ourselves, at God? 

The Madonna’s eyes do not convey condemnation, as if shouting, “Look what you did to me!” Rather, her eyes are messengers of empathy only known by one who has lived profound hurt, whispering with kindness, “Look what you are doing to yourself.”  

There have been over 400 attacks on Catholic churches since 2020. The numbers are climbing, as people are lost and lonely in a world without fathers, without families, feeling abandoned and betrayed. People aim their wrath against God instead of healing their relationship with God. But rage is not a healer. It is by our own sin and selfishness, anguish and anger, whereby we continue to damage ourselves and others. We are the modern vandals, all of us. Not one of us is righteous, not even one (Psalm 53:1). 

Among those I see in my psychology practice who are in a continuous war against their PTSD, I wish they could understand that their healing cannot come merely from medication or mental attitude change. 

The hardest battle for my patients is to be able to forgive themselves and those who have harmed them—not just for the past trauma, but also for the relationships with family and friends damaged along the way because their hearts were too heavily armored to enjoy the vulnerability of love. 

We need to see our own wounds reflected in Mary’s face, waking us to the realization of our self-inflicted injury. Then, with honest humility, we need to be ready to heal; ready to forgive and be forgiven. 

No matter how great our traumatic pain, Agatha Christie reminded us, “There is nothing in the world so damaged that it cannot be repaired by the hand of Almighty God.”

We cannot heal if we remain bitter, seek revenge, attack ourselves, others, church, and God. The path to recovery comes from actively choosing hope over despair, healing over hurting, embracing forgiveness instead of condemnation, and accepting the healing power of faith.  

Mary’s gaze is a message of compassion, as if to say, “Look upon my bruises and know they are nothing compared to the sacrifice of Jesus for us.” 

“He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).  

Yes, the Madonna della Bocciata is badly damaged, but we need to see a message in her wound: “I am not afraid to show my scars, and I do not want you to be afraid either.” This is why that fresco should never be repaired—because the miracle of our own healing can be inspired by her wounds. 

Author

  • Tim Murphy, Ph.D.

    Tim Murphy, Ph.D., is a psychologist, Navy veteran, and former Member of Congress. He is the author of The Christ Cure: 10 Biblical Ways to Heal from Trauma, Tragedy, and PTSD. His website is DrTimMurphy.com.

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