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Our Lady of Loreto

The Transportation of the Santa Casa of Loreto

Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770). Galleria dell’ Accademia – Venice.

The transportation of the Holy House of Loreto is one of the most extraordinary stories of medieval beliefs that have found adepts until our days. Loreto is an Italian town in the province of Ancona, not so far from Venice. It is only a small town, it consists mainly of one street full of souvenir shops, but with Rome it is the most renowned pilgrimage site of Italy. Tens of thousands of believers still come every year to Loreto to see the house of Mary. Together with Santiago de Compostela and Rocamadour, Loreto is one of the greatest and oldest pilgrimage sites of Europe, to be compared only with the much later Lourdes.

Legends claim that the Holy House of Mary, called ‘La Santa Casa’ was transported by angels from Jerusalem around 1291 to a hill near Torsatto in Dalmatia. The house would have been threatened to be destroyed by the Turks and thus was taken up and brought to more peaceful places. The house had been the scene of miracles in Torsatto and allegedly the Madonna had appeared to testify for the house. In 1294 angels brought it again through the skies over the Adriatic to a laurel grove in Italy. The Latin name for laurel is ‘lauretum’, hence the place was called Loreto. In 1295 the house was transported a last time to its present site.

The Holy House has been venerated in Loreto since the thirteenth century and a small town developed around the relic. Papal bulls attested to the verity of the miraculous healings effectuated by the Santa Casa and even as late as 1920 Pope Benedict XV declared the Madonna of Loreto to be the patron of aviators. Our aeroplanes could indeed be compared to flying houses, couldn’t they?

A church was built around the house. This basilica was started around 1464 under Pope Paul II, finished largely by 1587 – mainly its façade - under Pope Sixtus V. The basilica is called the Sanctuario della Santa Casa and stands of course in the Piazza della Madonna. The Holy House of simple stone is placed under a marble cupola of Donato Bramante and other architects were Giuliano da Maiano and Giuliano da Sangallo, all names among the most famous Renaissance and Baroque architects of Italy. The Santa Casa is one room that contains a richly decorated altar. The church too is richly decorated, with mosaics of Guido Reni, Il Domenichino, Federico Barocci and Carlo Maratti. The walls bear frescoes by Luca Signorelli and Melozzo da Forli. Girolamo Lombardo and his workshop cast the majestic bronze doors; Sansovino and Lombardo made sculptures. Over one of the doors stands a statue of a life-size Madonna that also Girolamo Lombardo casted. As one can imagine from these names, the basilica of Loreto was rich. All pilgrims donated to the Santa Casa. Loreto possessed an enormous treasure of gifts of pilgrims, collected over the centuries. In 1798 the French Revolutionary Army occupied northern Italy. The French stole the treasure. In 1808 Napoleon Bonaparte returned the statue of the Madonna that was by then studded with gold and precious stones, but not the treasure.

Such an extraordinary tale that happened close to Venice of course appealed to the imagination of Giambattista Tiepolo. Tiepolo was the master of exuberant pathos and extravagance in the visual arts. He received a commission for a ceiling fresco of the church of Sancta Maria di Nazareth agli Scalzi of Venice, so the theme of the Holy House of Loreto came to him naturally. The scene of a house being transported through the heavens, accompanied by crowds of triumphant angels could well fit for a ceiling fresco. The innocent devotes that came to pray in the church could not but be surprised by this marvellous and miraculous scene when they walked in the building and by chance looked up. Their mouths would fall open in marvel. It would be as if they saw in a flash the house flying through the skies.

The Venetian church of Santa Maria was destroyed in 1915, but a painting that was probably the cartoon for the ceiling fresco is preserved in the Galleria dell’ Accademia of Venice. The painting is one of the best expressions of Tiepolo’s unbridled imagination. Hordes of angels bear the house in the skies. Other angels and putti accompany the transport with trumpets and string instruments. Devils hide in fear before the holiness of the transport and armies recline below. Jesus with his cross looks benevolently at the crowd and laurels are brought along, not just in its branches but also in the form of a laurel crown. Laurels of course mean ‘lauretum’ so are a direct reference to Loreto. Above the Santa Casa thrones Mary the Madonna, in her classic red robe and bright blue cloak thus announcing her Assumption in the heavens.

Exuberance and extravagance, unbridled and wild expressions of grand vision are the only words by which such a scene can be qualified. An extravagant theme needed an extravagant representation, so much so that our incredulity cannot be shocked anymore. Any more restrained handling of the subject would have been received by rejection, but Tiepolo painted the theme so grand that one cannot but stay and smile – not laugh – and admire the outburst of joy, energy, splendour of colours, and eccentric inspiration of the artist. Tiepolo did not fight the legend but supported it with the grandest image possible and thus, miraculously also, lent credibility to the picture.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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