Ceiling 4

There is a legend – that after the crusaders were expelled from Palestine in 1291, angels carried Mary’s house in Nazareth away to safety.  This was the house in which she had been visited by Angel Gabriel who revealed that she was to carry the son of God.  This was the dwelling in which she later lived with her husband Joseph and son, Jesus. This was the home in which Jesus grew up, played, and enjoyed family life.   It was made of stone and fronted a cave hollowed out of rock which is venerated today at the Basilica of The Annunciation in Nazareth.

The angels flew first to Tersato in present-day Croatia with the stones, an area which is still venerated, then in 1294, when that location seemed unsafe, they carried them to Loreto.  There a towering basilica was built around the sacred house, to protect and honour it, and it became a place of pilgrimage and worship, visited by the faithful, by churchmen and popes as well as non-believers who came to gaze on the glorious basilica.

Basilica square 1

Loreto’s Basilica della Santa Casa & pavement artist

Not all Catholics believe in the angels, but many do believe that Mary’s house existed and that the stone walls were transported to Loreto by human intervention.   The house has no foundations, and the building materials and graffiti on its stones are said to resemble those in Nazareth at Mary’s time.  Scholars cite ancient texts, now lost, which refer to a 13th century family who transported the stones to Europe by ship to save them from destruction by the Turks.  I read with interest that the family name was said to be Angelo or De Angelis …  were they the legendary angels?   One document has ‘recently’ been found, dated 1294, which claims that the ruler of Epiro, Niceforo Angelo, gave the stones to his daughter with other precious gifts on her betrothal to the King of Naples.

Whatever, the truth – and when has faith been about ‘evidence’? – people have thronged to Loreto for centuries.    It is one of the foremost pilgrimage sites in the world, having been visited by over 200 saints and beatified persons and many Popes.   Pope Jean-Paul II visited Loreto several times and in 1987 said : “The thought of the humble house in which The Incarnate Word lived for years , convinces the pilgrim that God really loves man as he is and that he calls him, follows him, enlightens him, pardons him, saves him.”

Each year there is a major pilgrimage from Macerata to Loreto, attracting thousands of people walking on foot from all over Europe to the shrine.    Thanks to the ancient legend of the flying angels ‘Our Lady of Loreto’ was made the Patron Saint of Pilots in 1910, and on September 8th, Mary’s traditional birthdate, pilots assemble there to pray and take part in a colourful procession.

And so I went to Loreto on my journey along the Adriatic coast of Italy.  And the Basilica Della Santa Casa, on a hill overlooking lush hills and the sea, blew me away.

encasement & ceiling

From the formidable square, the Piazza della Madonna, bordered by important-looking buildings and containing a dramatic central fountain, one enters the large, wide church and at the farthest end of the aisle stands the shrine of the ‘sacred house’, encased in a carved marble structure.  When you approach and walk behind this edifice you gasp in wonder.   Not only is the encasement an exquisite work of art, but behind it there is a horseshoe of 13 beautiful chapels and high, high above you the most gorgeous painted ceiling.

Chapels 1

A view of some of the 13 chapels in the Basilica

Ceiling 1

The interior of the dome by Giuliano da Sangallo, 1500 AD

Ceiling 2

A detail of the dome in close-up

The phrase ‘it took my breath away’ is over-used but here it was a true description for the beauty of this place, built to the glory of the sacred dwelling, is overpowering.  It can even bring tears prickling to your eyes.  I speak from experience.

Each chapel has a splendour of its own which you can sit and contemplate.  Then one looks at the large marble encasement of the shrine in utter wonder for it is ornately carved and features perfectly sculpted figures of Sibyls and Prophets telling of ‘the glories of the Madonna’.   It was designed by Bramante, executed by a number of renowned renaissance artists, and resembles a large triumphal arch.

Encasement 1

You quietly enter the structure through a small side door in the encasement and inside is a simple and very old brick house, now a chapel, with traces of frescoes, an altar and a black Madonna.   Three of the brick walls are claimed to be the original holy house, the altar wall and ceiling were a later construction.    Obviously photography would be disrespectful and is not permitted.

Prophet 1

To see the faithful inside this small space is striking.  There is silence, and there is veneration, with many, of course, falling to their knees to pray.   Clearly many believe that this was the home of the holy family and the site of The Annunciation and thus one of most holy places in existence for the faithful.

Ceiling 3

The Sacristy of St Mark & its C15th masterpieces of perspective painting


Detail from St Mark’s Sacristy

I spent a long time in the basilica admiring the magnificence of the chapels, the shrine’s encasement, the ceilings and the works of art.  My experience was one of appreciation, however, and was not spiritual.  It did not touch me in that sense.  I am not religious but have some sense of what I suppose can be called ‘spirit’.   But I did not find it there.    In fact, the overwhelming majesty of man-made art can get in the way of spirituality for me.   If and when I get close to any sense of the ‘divine’ it is usually in simple chapels, and mostly in nature.  In fact, I was married on a clifftop, overlooking waves crashing onto rocks below, by a minister who understood that one can find spirituality outside of human constructions like churches.   At our wedding we read a poem by R F Delderfield, below, from his book ‘Diana’.

Nonetheless, whether you believe that this is Mary’s Nazareth house or not, the basilica is a stunning place to visit.  Official church information states that, whatever the truth, “it provides pilgrims with a chance to meditate on the supreme spiritual messages that the House conveys”.

Angels 2.JPG

Loreto was the triumphant finale to my Adriatic coastal route.  From there I turned inland, soon to cross undulating hills heading towards Umbria, Italy’s heart, where my next stop was Assisi.  There I was to have a more meaningful, and completely unexpected, soulful experience and another happy almost magical one, all of which you will hear about it in my next post!


He found his faith in the foxglove bell

His creed in the clustered stars

Of ladies-lace, where dust bent stems

Played games with sunlight bars.


In the moist gold shine of the celandine

He hunted heaven’s grace,

Sermons he heard in every copse

And many a gorse-grown place.


He did not need the parson’s plea

To note a godly hand

In the age of the oak or the bluebell smoke

On an April-stirring land.


His psalms were sung to the tissing larch

His hymns to the purple heath

To the iris clump on the marshy edge

Of the shallow lake beneath.


His prayers were said on a beech-leaf bed

Where the drifts lay deep in the lane

And his saints rode out on a south-west squall

To kiss his poll* with rain.


R F Delderfield

*poll : an old English word for head – from where we get poll tax, and opinion polls or counting of heads.

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  1. vacicfam says:

    Your posts become more and more polished and journalistic, Kingfisher, Very enjoyable

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