When historian Henry Adams and his fellow Americans—including Augustus St. Gaudens, Margaret Terry Chanler, Willa Cather, and Edith Wharton—traveled from the New World to our old home in Europe, they found the Mother of the Word Incarnate waiting for them. As their lives demonstrate, the Virgin has influenced the art and culture of America—though the nation has never quite come home to her.
When Adams received the news of Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, he was in Rome, and went to meditate on the steps of the Santa Maria in Ara Coeli. When his wife Clover committed suicide, he commissioned Augustus St. Gaudens to sculpt a Roman-influenced meditation on her life and death. St. Gaudens credited his career to immersion in Rome’s classical art. Back in America, Rome-sick in his dingy studio in a New York office building, he would let the faucet run all night while imagining the plash of Piazza Navona’s fountains.
When Italian troops walked through the breach in the Aurelian Wall at Porta Pia on September 20, 1870, they closed the last door to the eighth century. While Pio Nono became a prisoner of the Vatican, Adams felt handcuffed by his famous family, burdened by Adamantine chains forged in the eighteenth century. To soothe his melancholy and cope with the “acceleration” of the early twentieth century, he sought the wisdom and beauty of the twelfth. He saw on the road to Chartres that “nearly every great church of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries belonged to Mary, until in France one asks for the church of Notre Dame as though it meant Cathedral.”
Adams’s friend Margaret Terry Chanler, an expatriate in Rome, was greatly charmed by the old Roman street life. She watched young lovers, immaculately dressed in the finest fashions of the Via Condotti, stroll under the watchful eyes of the Immaculata. The Romans had carved Madonnelles—little Madonnas—into surveilling niches above the streets, guarding the passersby. And like a good mother keeping watch until curfew, “every evening the great bronze bell rang out the Ave María a quarter of an hour after sunset, and the Roman day began then,” wrote Chanler. “Time was not regulated by clocks, but by the ringing of the Angelus.”
As a girl, Chanler once met Pius IX on the playground in the public gardens in Rome. “We left our play to surround him and receive his blessing. He would give us his ring to kiss,” she writes in her memoir Roman Spring. “When told regretfully that [my brother and I] were Americans and Protestants, he patted our heads and promised to pray for us.” She remembers the pontiff as a man of wit and warmth. While some superstitious Italians believed him to have the “Evil Eye,” there were already rumors of miracles during his lifetime—which he endured with wry humor. The Guardia Nobile told Chanler of a man who asked for a pair of the pope’s silk stockings in the belief that they would be a sure cure for his gout. “The pontiff gave the stockings with his blessing, but said he never found they did his own gout any good,” she wrote. Years later, Chanler slipped into a Catholic Church and made her own profession of faith.
Though Adams was anxious about the reckless acceleration of history, his friend Edith Wharton mashed her foot down on the accelerator in her Motor Flight Through France. Dogmatically confident in her own taste, she shunned the popular artworks starred in guide books. She stopped in Rouen and stumbled upon Gerhard David’s Virgin Among The Virgins. She named it “The Virgin of the Grapes” for the “heavenly translucence of that bunch of grapes plucked from the vine of Paradise” held by the Infant Jesus on the Virgin’s lap. “It is part of its very charm to leave unsettled, to keep among the mysteries whereby it draws one back,” she wrote. Wharton drove on to the next town, but the Virgin stayed with her. Father John LaFarge, S.J., remembers being quietly interrogated about his religious beliefs by Wharton “as if she were looking for something desperately needed, but only vaguely knowing her own needs.”
Willa Cather, too, toured France, and later dreamed of having “a comfortable boardinghouse” near Chartres when Adams used to “prowl about the cathedral.” She would have discovered that the most luxurious rooms were preoccupied by a preeminent guest in “the habit of requiring in all churches a chapel of her own, called in English the Lady Chapel, which was apt to be as large as the church but was always meant to be handsomer,” writes Adams. “Behind the High Altar, in her own private apartment, Mary sat, receiving her innumerable suppliants.” Cather saw that “Raphael and Titian had made costumes for Her in their time, and the great masters had made music for Her, and the great architects had built cathedrals for Her,” she writes in Death Comes for the Archbishop. “Long before Her years on earth, in the long twilight between the Fall and the Redemption, the pagan sculptors were always trying to achieve the image of a goddess who should yet be a woman.”
When Adams first met Chanler in Rome, he befriended her eleven-year-old daughter by playfully warning that she must take care of him because he was growing smaller all the time and would soon be a little boy. As Cather wrote in Death Comes for the Archbishop, “There is always something charming in the idea of greatness returning to simplicity.” After Adams died, his niece Mabel Hooper LaFarge discovered among his desk papers a Prayer to the Virgin of Chartres. In it, Adams asked his gracious Lady to help him bear his “baby load” and promised that in eternal rest she would find him
still in thought before your throne,
Pondering the mystery of Maternity,
Soul within Soul,—Mother and Child in One!
When the Successor of an unbroken line spoke in Rome in 1854, his words could have come from the pages of Cather or Wharton: “What she asks, she obtains.” The Prince of the Apostles did not write fiction when he said of the Queen of Heaven, “Her pleas can never be unheard.”
Stephen Schmalhofer is a graduate of Yale College. He writes from Connecticut.