Loretto Properly Loreto
Loretto Properly Loreto (LAURETUI), an Italian city of some 8000 inhabitants, several miles south of Ancona, is renowned simply as a place of pilgrimage. It is the site of the celebrated sanctuary of the Virgin Mary called the Santa Casa, or Holy House. The church of Santa Casa was built in 1461-1513. The first mention of this santas casa is to be found in Flavius Blondus's (t 1463) Italia illustrata, where he says of it, "Celeberrimum totius Italiae sacellum beatae Virginis in Laureto." He mentions the many rich presents which were made to the shrine as a proof that "at this place the prayers for the intercession of the mother of God are granted," but he says nothing of the origin of the place. Pope Paul II (i 1471) granted indulgences to those who visited this shrine, and this example was followed by his successors. Baptista Mantuanus, in his Redemptoris mundi matris ecclesiae Laurefanae historias(Antwerp, 1576), relates, quoting a history found at the shrine itself (and probably written about 1450-80), that the house of the Virgin Mary, in which Christ was brought up, and which was said to have been discovered by St. Helena, was, after the total downfall of the country, and the destruction of its Christian churches by the Turks in May 1291, brought by the angels to Dalmatia, and four and a half years later to Italy, in the neighborhood of Recanati, and was thence finally transferred to its present site. This story is contradicted by the Church historians of the 14th century themselves, who say that in their day Mary's house at Nazareth was still visited by pilgrims. The houses of Recanati resembled each other very much, and the selection of the original habitation of the Virgin proved very difficult, as private interests became mixed up with it.
But now as to the church of the Santa Casa itself. It stands near the center of the town, in a piaza a which possesses other architectural attractions, the chief of which are the governor's palace, built from the designs of Bramante, and a fine bronze statue of pope Sixtus V. The great central door of the church is surmounted by a splendid bronze statue of the Madonna; and in the interior are three magnificent bronze doors filled with basreliefs, representing the principal events of scriptural and ecclesiastical history. The celebrated Holy House stands within. It is a small brick house, with one door and one window, originally of rude material and construction, but now, from the devotion of successive generations, a marvel of art and of costliness. It is entirely cased with white marble, exquisitely sculptured, after Bramante's designs, by Sansovino, Bandinelli, Giovalni Bolognese, and other eminent artists. The subjects of the bas- reliefs are all taken from the history of the Virgin Mary in relation to the mystery of the incarnation, as the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, with the exception of three on the eastern side, which are mainly devoted to the legend of the Holy House itself and of its translation. The rest of the interior of the church is rich with bas-reliefs, mosaics, frescoes, paintings, and carvings in bronze. Of this material, the finest work is the font, which is a masterpiece of art. The Holy House having been at all times an object of devout veneration, its treasury of votive offerings is one of the richest in the Western world. It suffered severely in the French occupation of 1796, but it has since received numerous and most costly accessions. Each of the innumerable gold and silver lamps kept burning at the shrine is endowed to the amount of several thousand dollars to secure their being always kept burning. The remainder of the wax candles and oil (of which some 14,000 pounds are burned annually) is sold as possessing sanative virtues, which are also supposed to accompany the use or even the handling of household vessels belonging to the shrine. As many as 40,000 masses have been said there in one year, which also adds greatly to the income. Popes Julius II, Sixtus V, and Innocent XII attached indulgences to the pilgrimages and prayers offered here, but nevertheless the number of pilgrims, which was said in 1600 to have reached 200,000 per annum, fell in the last century to 40,000, and in our own day remains at this number. The frescoes of the church are among the finest to be found in the world. The name it took from Laureta, a lady on whose estate the Suanta Casa remained for a while.
The history of this shrine has been critically examined by P.P. Bergerius, and in 1619 by Prof. Vernegger, of Strasburg. Its principal champions were Jesuits; among them we would mention Turrianus, Canisius, and Baronius. Imitations of the Santa Csasa have been erected in some places, as at Prague, near Augsburg, etc., and, in turn, became shrines. — Herzog, Real-Encyklop. 8:489.