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, just five days short of his sixty-first birthday.
It was 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, one of which hit the pope in the abdomen and another his left hand. The other bullets struck two innocent bystanders.
The pope spent three weeks in hospital; the would-be assassin was sentenced to life imprisonment. (As a result of an act of clemency, Agca was released in 2010.)
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 the third anniversary of the shooting, Pope John Paul II visited the shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal. The assassination attempt had taken place on her feast day and the pope donated to the shrine the bullet that had lodged in his body. It was later set in the crown of precious stones, which adorns the statue of 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.
Search Walks in Rome: