The Madonna del Silenzio Sanctuary

The Icon of Mary, Mother of God, the Virgin of Silence

For some time, an icon of the Mother of God, with her finger to her lips in a gesture inviting silence, has been circulating widely and raising questions. We would like it to inspire confident prayer above all. We are slowly breaking the silence to respond to those who have questions. We do so with joy because it is usually not a matter of curiosity but of affection inspired by an image that has touched the heart and perhaps imparted grace.

Timeline of the Icon of the Virgin of Silence

  • 1st November 2008: Friar Emiliano Antenucci writes spontaneously “The Book of Life,” the first small booklet for the Silence courses titled “Silence Speaks Silence.”
  • 26th-28th February 2010, in Foligno (Perugia): The first Silence course takes place, and they continue in the Italian region of Abruzzo, the land where Saint Peter Celestine V of Morrone, the hermit pope of silence, lived.
  • The original icon of the Virgin of Silence is commissioned by Brother Emiliano Antenucci. It is “written” and created, after about 9 months of work, by the Benedictine nuns of the Island of San Giulio d’Orta (NO).
  • 13th June 2011: The Madonna of Silence arrives at the convent in Penne (Pe).
  • 17th-18th March, 2012: Silence courses begin in Guadalajara, Mexico, with translations in both Spanish and later in English for various nations around the world, thanks to the collaboration of Magda Nava Sandoval (responsible for the course in Mexico, along with her husband).
  • A copy of the original Virgin of Silence is gifted to Pope Francis, and he is amazed by it. He placed it between the two lifts at the main entrance of the Apostolic Palace, in the courtyard of San Damaso, where everyone passes to have a conversation with him in his private study.
  • 18th May 2015: Pope Francis blesses this copy with the intention, “May the Virgin Mary intercede with the Lord, so that all who enter the Apostolic Palace may always have the right words.”
  • 15th , 2016: Friar Emiliano meets Pope Francis, and after the audience, the Holy Father blesses the original Virgin of Silence, autographing it with the inscription on the back of the icon: “Do not gossip about others!”
  • 22nd November 2017: Friar Emiliano, along with his Silence team, meets Pope Francis. After the audience, the Holy Father receives a copy of the book “The Path of Silence,” published by Effatà Editrice (a result of the Silence courses).
  • 28th November 2017: From the Vatican (Secretariat of State), a personal Apostolic Blessing is received by Brother Emiliano, his confreres, and those entrusted to his pastoral care.
  • 22nd March 2019: Friar Emiliano is invited for a private audience in the Apostolic Palace with Pope Francis to discuss the Virgin of Silence and related future projects.
  • 24th March 2019 (the eve of the Annunciation and his visit to the Shrine of Loreto): Pope Francis writes a letter by hand to the provincial minister of the Capuchins of Abruzzo, Father Nicola Galasso, with the following request: “It would be beautiful to find a place, a church, where public worship can be offered to the Virgin of Silence. Please think about it and make a proposal.”
  • Father Emiliano, together with the provincial minister and with the permission of the Order’s General, searches for suitable locations and identifies the Church of San Francesco d’Assisi and the Capuchin Convent in Avezzano (AQ), which had been abandoned for ten years and was owned by the province of the Friars Minor Capuchins of Abruzzo.
  • After numerous letters, phone calls, and meetings between Pope Francis and Father Emiliano, to ensure the success of the project, the Holy Father blesses this divine project by calling Bishop Pietro Santoro of Avezzano, who joyfully welcomes the new Sanctuary in his diocese, as desired by the Holy Father.

Father Emiliano Antenucci

What is an icon

An icon is not merely a religious subject painting. Unlike Western art, which, starting around 1300, moved away from this conception, an icon does not aim to reproduce what is seen with the eyes or the emotional impact produced by the contemplated reality. Instead, it is more of an invocation of the Presence of what is being depicted, and at the same time, it is the response from the Lord: “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am'” (Isaiah 58:9). It is, quite literally, a representation – a prayer that passes through the materiality of colors, forms, and lines.

An icon truly facilitates an encounter with the Lord, with the Mother of God, with the Saints for those who approach it with faith. It is, in other words, a sacramental. The Second Council of Nicaea (787), the last one of the undivided Church, recognized its legitimacy and effectiveness after a century of discussions, deepening of understanding, and struggles fomented by the powerful, by affirming that “the believer who venerates the icon is venerating the reality of the one who is depicted in it.”

Here, we must limit ourselves to brief insights into the theology of the icon. Those who wish to delve deeper can refer to texts like T. Spidlik and M. I. Rupnik’s “Faith According to Icons” (Lipa Edition). We’ll add just a few useful notes to better understand the icon in question.


Why is the icon sacramental?

What confers this sacramental character to the icon is the coexistence of certain elements that constitute its composition. First and foremost, there is what comes last in chronological order, namely, the blessing of the Church. Upon completing the work, with a specific prayer, the priest invokes the sanctifying presence of the Trinity on the written boards – it is said, “writing the icons” – so that those who look at them with devotion, humbly venerating them, may obtain mercy, grace, and deliverance from all evils and be deemed worthy of the heavenly kingdom.

Secondly, the inscription of the name of what is represented, as mentioned earlier, because, as in the Old Testament, the name is not just a distinctive sign or a title but a living relationship with the reality it signifies. With the inscription, the icon is thus connected to the reality of the subject it represents. In other words, it simply presents it to us as one would present a friend, so that it may also enter into our life and our friendship. In our case, the writing in Greek characters is an abbreviation of “Μητήρ Θεοῦ” (pronunciation: métēr theù), Mother of God.

The third element that contributes to the sacramentality of the icon is the process by which it is “written.” This process is not dependent on the painter’s artistic inspiration but must conform to the canons provided by the Church, inspired by its liturgical theology and the teachings of the Fathers. Inseparably linked to the technical process is prayer, which accompanies the iconographer’s work from the very inception of the project.

The fourth element is the way of life, the continuous path of purification and conversion of the iconographer. Because prayer is not just about words, meditations, or devout thoughts; prayer is authentic when one’s life is genuinely dedicated to the constant search for the Lord’s face. A 16th-century Russian synod, known as the “The Hundred Chapters Council,” aimed to reform various aspects of the Russian Orthodox Church of the time and also focused on the spiritual preparation of iconographers. It decreed that icons, even if of high quality, written by individuals whose conduct was not in accordance with the Gospel should be destroyed.

Process and meaning

The icon is painted using the ancient technique of egg tempera. Pigments, which are colored powders of mineral and organic origin (earth, crushed stones, powdered roots), are mixed with an emulsion made from egg yolk and applied to a wooden surface first covered with a light canvas and then with many thin layers of gypsum, mixed with rabbit or fish glue. Through these inert elements drawn from nature, the Lord, His Mother, and the Saints convey to us the vivid image of their Presence. This continues the logic of the Incarnation, the humility of God. Consequently, through the icon that incorporates elements of the cosmos, the latter is redeemed from the ephemeral and the profane to enter into the dynamism of divinization to which it is called (cf. Romans 8:18-22). The icon seeks to represent and make present not what our physical eyes see but the spiritual reality.

We must, therefore, allow ourselves to be introduced into a different kind of vision, one that points to eternal realities. For instance, the skin tone of the faces is not rosy but golden, signifying the transfiguration of humanity. Even the eyes are sometimes enlarged, with a gaze fixed on the beyond, and the broad and high forehead indicates contemplative thought. The features are stylized, as is the execution of the garments, with the lighter parts (highlights or “luminances”) rendered geometrically. Through geometry, the intention is to express the perfection of the invisible world.

Some colors bear symbolic significance. The Mother of God is always characterized by a green-blue tunic and a headscarf (“mitella”) of the same color: the tunic is the garment closest to the body, and the green-blue signifies humanity. However, a large purple mantle envelops the entire person. The color purple, once highly precious and therefore reserved for emperors, signifies divinity. This is intended to proclaim that Mary is a true woman of our lineage, but God has clothed her in supreme dignity.

In icons of Christ Pantocrator (Almighty Lord), the colors are inverted: the tunic or chiton is purple-red, and the mantle is blue or green-blue. This inversion is meant to express that He, who is God, has clothed Himself in our humanity. Gold, more than being a color, represents pure light and indicates divinity. By surrounding the figure, it removes it from space and time, signifying that it belongs to the kingdom of God. The three stars on the mantle of the Mother of God are also of gold and indicate her perpetual virginity, before, during, and after giving birth.

How the icon of the Mother of God, Virgin of Silence, came into being

As mentioned, iconography is a particular art form: its intention is not to produce original works or showcase the artist’s skill but to proclaim the Gospel by making the Word present through the image. Therefore, icons exhibit a high degree of formal structure and repetition, with small but significant variations within each, and the reference to previous models ensures the correctness of the iconographic language. In our case, there is no ancient model of a Mother of God, Virgin of Silence within the Byzantine tradition. We have learned that in recent years, Sister Renata from the hermitage of San Biagio in Subiaco has written an icon on this subject.

Subsequently, Mr. Gianmario Carozzi, inspired by a Coptic fresco from the 8th century depicting Saint Anne, painted an icon (Santa Maria del Silenzio) that represented Mary in full figure, with her finger on her lips and a blessing gesture. Many reproductions of this icon were made, including on wood and fabric, and one of these was given to Friar Emiliano Antenucci. Wanting a true half-length icon of that subject, he requested it from the monastery on the Island of San Giulio. He provided a nun iconographer with the models he had: an image of Mr. Carozzi’s icon and one of the ancient frescos of Saint Anne found in Faras, Upper Egypt, and kept it in the National Museum of Warsaw. The nun decided to work from that truly enchanting fresco, albeit with some reservations.

First of all, was it possible to attribute the same gesture to the Mother of God as her mother, Saint Anne? It was then remembered that the only other iconographic subject with that gesture is Saint John the Evangelist, whom the Byzantine tradition calls John the Theologian for having delved into the unfathomable depths of the Incarnate Word of God in his Gospel.

Why does Saint John invite silence in iconography? To enter the Mystery, to listen to the Word of Life.

And why does Saint Anne invite silence? To enter the Mystery, to contemplate her motherhood of grace, which prepares for the divine motherhood of her daughter, Mary.

So, who more than Mary has the right to assume that sober gesture? The Mother of God invites to silence because she carries within herself the Mystery, the eternal Word becoming flesh among us for our salvation.

Another serious issue: is it possible to create icons of the Mother of God without her Son? Tradition says no. Indeed, it was considered to represent the Trinity above, in the evocative way frequent in Byzantine iconography, with concentric semicircles of blue-blue color irradiated with gold and three descending rays (for example, the icon of the Nativity or Pentecost). After much hesitation, this was not done, as it was desired to focus attention as much as possible on the permanent indwelling of the Trinity in Mary, who, in silence, guards it.

Another formal model is provided by the icon of the Ascension, in which Mary is depicted in a central position, facing the viewer. Her left hand with an open palm – in a blessing gesture – very common in Byzantine iconography, also used in our icon – signifies with its verticality the Son ascending to heaven, while the right hand is inclined horizontally, indicating the path. Mary invites us to walk in history while keeping the gaze of our hearts fixed on heaven.

In the icon of the Mother of God of Silence, however, Mary’s right hand is brought to her lips. As in the icons of Saint Anne and Saint John, the “Theologian of Silence,” it expresses that the wonder of the mystery of the Incarnation should become a permanent attitude of the heart, uninterrupted listening to the Word that continuously resounds within, a silent song of praise that bursts forth from every fiber of one’s being.

However, the symbolism of the path that the Mother of God revealed in the Ascension icon has not been lost. In our icon, the traditionally golden ribbon that borders the entire mantle of the Mother of God has been rendered in white gold, with the intention of assimilating it to a road. Here, we depart from the strict interpretation of iconography to listen to what the Spirit stirs in the heart.

In the Bible, human life is often compared to a path, a journey that unfolds step by step before us. The way is already traced by the Lord, the goal of our journey, but it only becomes true for us as we travel it, and we remain free to lose our way if we choose to leave the path of truth to follow illusory mirages. On our journey, the Mother of God becomes our companion and a sure guide. She invites us to pause, to consider everything carefully. The gesture of her authoritative yet gentle left hand evokes a word that the Lord speaks through the prophet Jeremiah: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Jeremiah 6:16) This gesture simultaneously expresses a blessing that propels us forward: the ribbon, starting from the base of the depiction, rises, descends, continues invisibly, reappears… However, the good way is not entirely linear, easy, or predictable; it requires trust, following, and being led. It will involve uphill climbs, which entail effort and perseverance. Saving one’s breath… But silence, essential for any authentic journey of communion with the Lord, is much more than an ascetic means.

At the peak of the right arm of the Holy Virgin, the ribbon breaks, and the path requires a leap to a higher level, indicated by Mary’s gesture. It seems to lovingly say to us, “Seal your lips, guard the Word in the depths of your heart, let yourself be surprised by the Spirit.” “When you can no longer see how to continue on the journey, when every opportunity seems lost, when the hardships faced seem to have been in vain, be silent. Let yourself be carried beyond by silence, lifted up by love, without resistance, without the tumult of your thoughts. Then, you will find the way to follow, and in it, you will catch a glimpse of my face, and as you follow it, you will radiate my peace.” Like Abraham, like Mary, like the saints who have gone before us on the journey of life, we advance in faith, certain of the happiness that awaits us, grateful to the Lord who has called us by name, redeeming us from senselessness. We are joyful to offer the world the testimony that truly God fulfills the desires of the heart.


We have received news that some graces have been attributed to the half-length icon of the Mother of God that we have written. Therefore, with Mary, we magnify the Lord! We have been asked what was special about this icon when it was created. We respond by sharing two testimonies: an excerpt from a letter to Friar Emiliano, who had commissioned it, and a recent written testimony for someone who wanted to know how a nun iconographer approaches her work.

From the letter to Father Emiliano

Dearest Father Emiliano, for over twenty years, I have had the grace of being able to write icons, together with some sisters in my Community, and for each of us, this “work” is felt as a personal gift of prayer and a ministry of consolation, healing, and liberation on behalf of our brothers. We truly immerse them in the prayer of the monastic community when we write an icon for them, and they never leave because the icon is with them. We already have the sense of the Presence while creating them, and sometimes we later learn that they are a source of grace for the people who pray before them. The Presence is not given at the same time, but when “it’s there,” we know that everything that follows will come naturally. We can mess up or decide to radically change the expression on the faces, but we won’t be able to damage or change it; now it “is there,” independent of us, but also given to us. In the case of the Virgin of Silence, even from the initial sketch on paper, it was very simple and profound, terribly… eloquent! It was already there. When I transferred the design to the board, the impression was even more confirmed: it would create itself. I worked on it for a long time, but more out of the desire to be with Her than because the result was delayed. However, this was not an exception; it happens at other times too, and I’ve been reflecting on it these days… so I’m sharing the final conclusions in advance and will leave you a written account of the things said orally. The spirit with which we carry out this work-service-gift of iconography is as described above, and we often feel that the image we deliver is filled with grace. But it’s like delivering an updated, efficient, brand-new computer: in itself, an excellent tool… if the recipient knows how to use its potential properly! It may have fantastic programs, but if I don’t know how to use them… So it is with our icons: they are all made with the desire to bring Christ, Mary, and the Saints to the people, to make them more sensibly close. All of them receive a blessing prayer according to the Byzantine tradition, in which, among other things, it is asked that those who approach them with faith receive healing, consolation, mercy, and peace from God. Therefore, they are all potentially miraculous… you just have to activate them! (…).

Testimony of a nun iconographer

I am a Benedictine nun of San Giulio Island, by the grace of God for many years in the monastery. I started writing icons in 1992, a year after my solemn profession. It has been grace upon grace. I have no artistic training, having graduated in Classical Literature. I have always felt a predisposition for drawing, especially faces, which I filled books, notebooks, and loose sheets with since kindergarten. However, I had no experience with brushes, except for whitewashing brushes, a splendid skill learned in the monastery. I confess immediately that when I received the proposal to talk about my approach to executing the icon (properly said ‘writing the icon’), I wanted to disappoint rather than deceive. My lack of artistic experience, in fact, could have been a source of encouragement for others to undertake iconography. The path of inner healing, that is, of incessant conversion, which merged with writing icons for me, may have aroused a similar desire: if no specific preparation or attitude is required and it benefits the spirit, then I’ll try too! It’s not that simple. I said first that I am a nun, and this is truly the fundamental grace for me. Over time, day after day, I have learned, without ever finishing, to seek the face of the Lord in everything and above everything. In toil and dirty work, in vegetables to clean, in obedience to everyday life, in the ever-renewed fidelity to prayer, in the communion to be built and constantly rebuilt with my sisters. On this lived experience, the gift of God has bloomed freely, but it cannot be demanded. I am sorry when iconography is made a ‘status symbol’ of spiritual achievement: it distorts its meaning! And seeking inner healing in art rather than in the humble service of everyday life is to remain eternally ill with egocentrism. Excuse the premises that may seem mundane, but icons are made of earth. And in the earth, the light of the Face radiates. Iconography is a beautiful job. But the truly beautiful originating experience is growing in communion with the Lord through daily life. In short, I don’t want to make my activity in the monastery something more spiritual than the tasks of my sisters, or of those who seek the Lord with all their hearts, with all their souls, with all their strength in their daily occupations. But it is true that it is a special job. But please don’t say it! You write the icon, and the Icon writes you. From the moment you look for the suitable board for the requested subject and for the people it is intended for, the icon is communion of prayer with other believers who have requested it, and it is an invocation of the Presence for other believers to whom it is destined. Then it’s time to get to work, having already provided for the priming (canvas and many layers of Bologna gypsum mixed with rabbit glue) of a certain number of lime wood boards. Our entire monastic life is prayer and asceticism, especially through continuous self-denial. Therefore, we did not want to differentiate ourselves from our community with special fasts related to our service as iconographers. All the nuns begin work with a prayer; we do it with the ancient prayer of the iconographer, in which the awareness of being mere instruments in the hands of the Divine Artisan is well expressed, and one asks Him for the purification of the whole being to become suitable instruments. And we start, knowing that we don’t know, don’t know how.