The 15th-century statue is deeply venerated by many Romans and also by Catholics all over the world who believe it can heal the sick. It is the object of pilgrimages and is showered with jewels, precious coins, gold and rich ex votos and letters from people praying for a cure or grateful for recovery.
Its custodians, Franciscan monks, sell most of the valuables to raise money for the poor but some of its treasure was stolen, too, as well as cash from the 13th-century monastery attached to the church, atop the Capitol Hill.
The 60cm (2ft) statue was whisked away from a room in the monastery on Tuesday evening while the monks were singing Vespers. It had been taken from the glass case - well protected by an alarm system - in a side-chapel of the church where it is displayed during the day but not yet locked up with its treasure in the safe where it is kept at night.
Carabinieri are looking for three men aged around 30 who were seen by a young Korean lay brother in a dimly-lit corridor of the monastery around the time of the theft. Thinking they were employees, he greeted them and they responded. The thieves are thought to have entered the complex from scaffolding on one side as the doors were heavily locked. Two jemmies were found which they had clearly used to force open internal doors.
'They were people who knew the habits of the monks perfectly,' said carabinieri sergeant Curzio Iannone. 'They knew in particular that between 19.30 and 20.15 the monks are praying and singing and no one is around in the living quarters.'
The carabinieri were puzzled about the motive because the Bambinello is virtually unsaleable. It is not particularly beautiful in itself and is so well known that it would soon be recognised. One theory was that it had been stolen on commission, another was that it had been kidnapped in the hopes of a ransom. There remained also the hope that the thieves were only interested in its diadem and jewels and that the wooden statue would eventually find its way back. It was stripped of its jewels once before and within days it was covered with new ones.
The Bambinello is said to have been carved by a Franciscan monk in the Holy Land out of olive wood from the Garden of Gethsemane and 'baptised' in the waters of the River Jordan. Its first 'miracle' was its arrival in Rome - the vessel bringing it to Italy is said to have been shipwrecked but the statue was saved.
It has been frequently taken out to comfort the sick and dying of Rome, particularly children. Once a Roman prince placed a splendid coach at its disposal, but now it goes by car.
So revered is it that soldiers who stopped a cardinal's car while the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was making a speech in nearby Piazza Venezia immediately let it through when they saw it was carrying the Bambinello to some sickbed. In 1897 the Vatican allowed it to be crowned in honour of its miraculous powers.
In 1798 it was stolen by French soldiers but bought back for the church by a rich and pious Roman, Severino Patriarca.
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