Thursday, July 25, 2019

The Shrine of Santa Maria del Fonte in Caravaggio, Italy

In the year 1432, the northern Italian city of Caravaggio, about 22 miles to the east of Milan, was at the center of a long-running conflict between the Duchy of Milan and the Venetian Republic, a conflict attended by frequent seiges and sacks, violent faction-fighting within the cities and towns of the whole area, and plundering by bands of mercenaries roving the countryside. On May 26th of that year, the Virgin Mary appeared to a peasant girl named Gianetta de’ Vacchi as she was kneeling in a field to say the evening Angelus. In tears, the Virgin consoled Gianetta for the ill-treatment she was then suffering at the hands of her alcoholic husband, and asked her to deliver a message aimed at putting an end to the conflict. The words of the Virgin were as follows: “The Most High and Almighty, My Son, intended to destroy this land, because of the iniquities of men, since they do evil every day, and fall from sin to sin. But for seven years, I have implored My Son for mercy for their sins. Therefore, I wish you to tell each and all to fast on bread and water every Friday, in honor of My Son, and after Vespers, out of devotion to me, to keep every Saturday as a feast day. They must dedicate half of that day to me, in gratitude for the many and great favors obtained from My Son through My intercession.” In accordance with this charge, Giannetta did as she was asked, and implored the civil authorities to make a permanent peace settlement.

As would later happen at Lourdes, a spring of water rose up out of the ground, in which many people were healed of various infirmities; a hospice and church were erected on the site very shortly thereafter. In 1575, St Charles Borromeo began a new and far grander church, according to a design by the architect Pellegrino Tebaldi, but the project was only completed in the early decades of the 18th century; the site of the apparition is directly behind the high altar. It is now the second most visited Marian shrine in Italy after the Holy House of Loreto; here are some recent pictures from our Ambrosian writer Nicola de’ Grandi. (By the way, the painter Michelangelo Merisi was born in Milan in 1571 to a couple from Caravaggio, and used the name of their native place as his nom de plume to distinguish himself from the other, more famous Michelangelo.)

The church is set at the center of a wide piazza, and surrounded by symmetrical tree-lined porticos on all four sides. The fountain of water runs through a corridor underneath the church (photos below), then passes out into this area on the side of the building, and is collected in a large pool surrounded by a marble balustrade.
The site of the apparition, known as “Il Sacro Speco” in Italian, “the Holy Cave.” (The same term is used for the shrine of St Benedict at Subiaco.) The wooden statues of the Virgin Mary and Giannetta (who has never been canonized, but is popularly called a Blessed), the work of Ortisei Moroder, were inaugurated in 1932, during the celebration of the fifth centenary of the apparition. The Blessed Card. Ildephonse Schuster, as Papal Legate, personally crowned the statue of the Virgin.
The nave and high altar.
The high altar, built from 1735-50, is the work of the architect Filippo Juvarra, who was inspired by Michelangelo Buonarroti’s plans for the high altar of St Peter’s Basilica.
The brief of Pope St Pius X by which the shrine was elevated to the rank of a minor basilica in 1906.
The miraculous fountain within the corridor underneath the church.
Mosaic by Mario Busini, one of a series added in the 1950s.
The apparition took place just over 20 years before the fall of Constantinople, when much of Europe was occupied with the question of healing the Great Schism and organizing a crusade to rescue the Byzantine Empire from the imminent Turkish conquest. An undocumented tradition has it that Giannetta went to Constantinople and appeared before the Emperor John VIII to plead with him to heed the Virgin Mary, and treat for reunion with the Church of Rome.
Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan at the time of the apparition (from 1412 until his death in 1447.)
Francesco Foscari, the contemporary Doge of Venice, and the longest reigning in the history of the Republic (34½ years, from 1423-57.)
Caravaggio is situated within the diocese of Cremona; in December of 1590, Niccolò Card. Sfondrati, the bishop of Cremona, was elected Pope, taking the name Gregory XIV. He was in poor health at the time of his election, and died after a reign of just over 10 months.
In the corridor are also displayed two relics of miracles of the Virgin Mary. In 1520, the head of a group of thieves who had been condemned to death, but was sincerely repentant of his crimes, was to be beheaded on this block, which broke at the moment the executioner swung the axe, sparing him the death blow.
In 1650, a man who was being pursued at night by bandits sought refuge in the sanctuary, and the door-bolt broke to let him in to safety.

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