Embedded in the shiny, black cobble-stones of Piazza San Pietro is a small, white marble plaque, which is engraved with the coat of arms of John Paul II (r. 1978-2005). The plaque marks the place where the pope was shot on May 13th, 1981.
In 1981, May 13th fell on a Wednesday, the day the pope holds a weekly audience in St Peter's Square. John Paul II had just entered the piazza in an open car (the so-called pope-mobile) when Mehmet Ali Agca, a twenty-three year old Turk, fired four shots at him, one of which hit the pope in the abdomen and another his left hand. The two other bullets struck two innocent bystanders.
The pope spent three weeks in hospital; the would-be assassin was sentenced to life imprisonment. In June 2000, after serving almost 20 years in prison, Ağca was pardoned (at the pope's request) by the Italian president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, and deported to Turkey.
John Paul II fervently believed that his life had been saved through the intervention of the Virgin Mary, to whom he was particularly devoted. And so, in thanks, he had a mosaic of the Madonna and Child placed in an aedicule, overlooking the side of the square in which he was shot. The image is entitled MATER ECCLESIAE (Mother of the Church).
On May 13th, 1984, John Paul II visited the shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal. (It was on her feast day that he had been shot.) The pope presented to the shrine the bullet that had entered his body. The bullet was later set in the crown of precious stones, which adorns the statue of the Virgin Mary.
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private walking tours of Rome.
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