Keeping watch over the centuries-old St. Peter’s Square in Rome is a relatively new work of art: the mosaic of Mary, “Mater Ecclesiae” (“Mother of the Church”).

The image is widely associated with the feast instituted for the first time by Pope Francis in May of this year.

The idea of the image was born in 1980, when a young Opus Dei university student at an audience with St. Pope John Paul II suggested that St. Peter’s Square was missing an image of the Virgin Mary.

“Good, very good! We have to put the finishing touch on the square,” replied the pope, according to a 2011 L’Osservatore Romano article by architect Javier Cotelo, who had a role in placing the mosaic.

After that, the mosaic’s design became the fruit of a collaboration between then-Opus Dei head Msgr. Alvaro del Portillo and the pope himself.

But while plans for the image were being finalized, the pope was shot in St. Peter’s Square in 1981 by Turkish assassin Mehmet Ali Agca. He credited the Virgin Mary’s intercession with saving his life, so the plans for the mosaic took on a more personal meaning for the pope. 

Just seven months later on Dec. 7, 1981, the Polish pontiff blessed the newly installed mosaic on the corner of a building overlooking St. Peter’s Square not only as a “finishing touch,” but also as a way of entrusting the Church to Mary’s maternal protection and as a sign of gratitude for his survival.

Below the image of Mary and the Child Jesus is an inscription reading, “Totus Tuus” (“Totally Yours” in Latin), the apostolic motto of the pope’s papacy. The phrase comes from a Marian consecration prayer the pope found in a book by St. Louis de Montfort.

“I belong entirely to you, and all that I have is yours,” the prayer reads. “I take you for my all. O Mary, give me your heart.”