Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Holy House of Loreto

Every Catholic country has a Marian shrine which may be regarded as its national shrine of the Mother of God par excellence, such as Lourdes in France and Czestochowa in Poland; for Italy, that shrine is the Holy House of Loreto, which keeps its principal feast today. The traditional story recounts that the Virgin Mary’s house in Nazareth, where the Incarnation took place, was flown by angels from the Holy Land when the Crusader states fell, and brought first to Croatia in 1291, then three years later across the Adriatic to the area of Loreto. (There is some evidence that the angels in question may have actually been an aristocratic family of the Italian Marches named “Angeli.”) By the mid-15th century, it had become a very important pilgrimage shrine, and a project was begun to construct a large church around the Holy House, as well as a pilgrim hospice; this was completed in 1587, during the papacy of Sixtus V, a native son of the region who was famous for promoting important building works.

The façade of the basilica at Loreto at night; photo by Nicola de’ Grandi.
The house itself is a fairly small plain stone structure, certainly very ancient, and certainly made from materials commonly used for simple houses in the Holy Land, but not in Italy. It is now enclosed in a large rectangular marble box, commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1509 from the architect Donatello Bramante, whose design was completed from 1513 to 1527 by Antonio Sangallo the Younger; the importance of the Holy House is also indicated by the fact that both of these men served as chief architect for the rebuilding of St Peter’s, before Michelangelo took over in 1545. The box is beautifully decorated on the outside with sculpted relief panels of the life of the Virgin, works of very high quality.

A 14th century statue of the Madonna long venerated in the Holy House was destroyed by fire in 1921, and replaced by a copy; it is traditionally clothed over with an elaborate jeweled garment. This year, however, it was processed through grounds of the Basilica without the garment, as a sign of mourning for the deaths and damage caused by the recent earthquakes; Loreto is in fact fairly close to Norcia. Many Italian churches have relics of the “veil of the Virgin Mary”, which are actually pieces of previous versions of this garment.

Photo of the procession last night, courtesy of Prof. Andrea Carradori
On the evening of December 9th, many towns in the area, including Norcia, build bonfires in their public squares, to light the way for the angels carrying the Holy House to Loreto, while at midnight precisely, church bells ring to commemorate their arrival. The feast was traditionally referred to as the “Translation of the Holy House” in pre-Conciliar liturgical books, and celebrated in every diocese of Italy; it is generally known as the “festa della venuta – the feast of the arrival” in Italian. In 1920, Pope Benedict declared Our Lady of Loreto Patron Saint of aviators, then still a very new and dangerous profession.

Here are some photos of the Basilica taken by Nicola de’ Grandi during a recent visit. The church also has a treasury with some very nice liturgical objects; I will make a separate post with Nicola’s photographs of it tomorrow.

Three views of the marble box which encloses the Holy House; the third photo also shows the dome, which was completed in 1500, and at the time, second in size only to that of the Duomo of Florence.

The choir chapel is also known as the German chapel, since was decorated at the expense of German Catholics by the Painter Ludwig Seitz for the sixth centenary of the translation of the Holy House.

The basilica has four sacristies, each named for one of the Evangelists. The frescoes of Angels and Prophets in the sacristy dedicated to St Mark, by Melozzo da Forlì (1477-79) are particularly famous.

The treasury room was created by Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) to house the enormous quantity of votive offerings left at the shrine; the frescoes in the ceiling by Pomarancio show stories of the life of the Virgin, along with prophets and sibyls.

This passage connects one of the sacristies with the basilica and the treasury; over the door is a marble relief by Francesco Selva (1611), showing the translation of the Holy House.

The dome of the shrine seen as one walks up the hill.

The view of the countryside of the Marches from the top.

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