The first document we have relating to the translation of the Holy House by angels dates from 1440 and was written by St Catherine of Bologna (Santa Caterina de’ Vigri): “Rosarium, verses 73-103”. This is not a revelation, but a prayer and meditation addressed to Christ. St Catherine received a good education at the d’Este court in Ferrara before entering the “Corpus Domini” monastery in Bologna, and her writings show her to have been familiar with the work of Pseudo Jerome (9th century), widely known in the Middle Ages, and to have been aware of the account of the translation by angels of the Holy House of Nazareth to Loreto, information contained in the widely known opuscoli loretani, with which the learned clergy at the d’Este court must certainly have been familiar. The existence of these tracts was noted by Giacomo Ricci (1468/1469), author of “Virginis Mariae Loretae Historia”, published by Father Giuseppe Santarelli (Loreto, 1987).
After Giacomo Ricci, the Rector of the Shrine at Loreto, Tolomei Pietro di Giorgio known as ‘Il Teramano’ (native of Teramo, translator’s note), wrote around the year 1472 the work which was to become the main and official document, “Historia Virginis Loretae”. This was soon followed by “Historia ecclesiae Lauretanae” (Bologna, 1489) by the Blessed Giovanni Battista Spagnoli (beatified by Pope Leo XIII on 17th September 1885). Ricci, Il Teramano, and the Blessed Spagnoli all confirm the translation of the Holy House by angels. This narrative shows the House as already a church with a sloping roof, an image recurring in the relative iconography; frequently a small bell tower also figures in the iconography. The representation of the House as a church was explained by the belief that the apostles intended making the Holy House into a church. The Loreto configuration, with brick walls, was intended as the Church translated by angels. The fourth wall, needed to close the open space of the grotto, already existed in Nazareth, according to tradition. While it was being transported, it was noted that the house lacked foundations and the Holy House was indeed placed on Prodo hill without foundations.
Before writing about the House Il Teramano had already questioned two witnesses from nearby Recanati, who – unfortunately – lived about 170 years after the fact: time enough for the family name Angeli or De Angeli to be interpreted as ‘angels’.
The two witnesses were Paolo di Rinalduccio and Francesco known as the Prior. By the time Il Teramano wrote his narrative, they were both dead. Both of them reported having heard the story from “a grandfather of our grandfathers”, without further detail as to the exact degree of ancestry.
Paolo di Rinalduccio’s great-grandfather saw angels carry the church across the sea and place it in the woodland known as selva di Loreta, near Porto Recanati. This great-grandfather then went to see it. Francesco, known as the Prior, reported that his great-grandfather lived close to the Church set down in the selva di Loreta woodland, and he saw it raised by angels and carried to the hill named Monte dei due fratelli (Two Brothers Mount), which must have been close to the south-eastern side of the present Apostolic Palace. However, it is difficult to identify with certainty Monte dei due fratelli which must, however, have been a privately-owned area on the hill known as Colle Prodo. It is reasonable to conclude that the component parts of the Holy House were deposited here pending rebuilding.
According to accounts, the two brothers who owned the land quarrelled over the income deriving from the presence of the Holy House, and the angels therefore removed the House to Colle Prodo hill and placed it on a public road so that it was no longer a source of private income.
However, the laws of the time forbade building on roads, and so the Holy House had to be demolished immediately, without further investigation. The problem could only be solved by obtaining permission to divert a stretch of the road, subsequently rejoining the original road further down the valley, and this was done.
The claim that the House was transported by angels or Crusaders has very distant origins. About thirteen years after the publication of Il Teramano’s work, the Franciscan Father Francesco Suriano, custodian of the Holy Land and Apostolic Delegate for all the East, condemned this story as unreasonable nonsense with no basis in fact. We, however, are now in possession of the facts as a result of archival and archaeological investigations.
The Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerick (1774 - 1824) saw the Holy House, in the shape of a church, transported over the sea by seven angels: three held the front and three the back, while the seventh angel preceded them, as a guide. The Holy House had no foundations, in keeping with traditional beliefs. As concerns the Blessed Anne Catherine, it must be said that God aimed at her edification and would not put her in a position which contrasted with the traditional narrative, widely accepted and defended by the Roman Catholic Church of the time. The Blessed Anne Catherine became an agent affirming the authenticity of the Holy House of Loreto, defending it against those who contested this authenticity, chief among whom was Pietro Paolo Vergerio (1496 - 1565), a Roman Catholic bishop who had converted to Protestantism.
In the eighteenth century, however, contesting the authenticity of the Holy House was no longer of interest to Protestants, for this was the Age of Enlightenment, which brought with it a demand for careful research of documents. Such research was lengthy and complex and started from the premise that hasty conclusions should not be drawn, and that first of all the original document – the Relic itself – should be consulted and examined. Studies were carried out by such important figures as the Bishop of Recanati and Loreto, Father Felice Paoli (1738 -1806), and Father Joseph Anton Vogel (1756 -1817), a collaborator of Bishop Paoli and one of the foremost historians to investigate the Holy House. Other prominent figures included Monsignor Stefano Bellini (1740 - 1828), successor to Bishop Paoli, and Monaldo Leopardi (1776 - 1847), father of the great writer and poet Giacomo Leopardi. A provocative study, sloppy, biased, and full of gross approximations, was written by the Barnabite Father Leopoldo De Feis (1844 -1909); its only merit is that it launched a spell of intensive studies around the question. Another worthy scholar, whose work however is marred by undeserved prejudice and a lack of any conclusion was the French Canon Ulysse Chevalier (1841 - 1923). He was opposed by many scholars, the most effective of whom was the Jesuit Father Ilario Rinieri (1853 - 1941).
Research by means of documentary material found in various archives was important, but it was of even greater importance to consult the most eloquent document of all: the Holy House itself. And this could only be done by archaeologists. It took considerable time, but in the end they succeeded.
The slow march of archaeology
From the first construction of underground walls to act as foundations, when the walls of the House were moved, it was clear that there were no original foundations. This was confirmed in 1531, and again in 1672 and 1751, when maintenance work was carried out on the floor. Observing the perimeter walls from inside the House it could be seen that the walls of the Holy House were placed directly on the ground, confirming the official account.
A fire which broke out in 1921 made it necessary to renew the floor, and on this occasion the architect Federico Mannucci also noted the absence of any foundations. His conclusion was that it would be absurd to hold that the Holy House had been brought here by "mechanical means". The architect had in mind a system of rollers on which the House would have been transported in one piece. This was clearly not possible and therefore only angels could have carried out the task.
Mannucci had been commissioned by Pope Leo XIII to investigate and draw conclusions as to whether the Holy House had been transported by angels or not. He observed that “it is surprising and extraordinary that this building, the Holy House, has no foundations, is situated on loose earth, and is overloaded in part by the weight of the dome built in place of the roof and yet shows no signs of subsidence or of the least damage to the walls” (Federico Mannucci, “Annali della Santa Casa”, 1932). Mannucci’s conclusions were somewhat hasty, considering that the north wall of the Holy House showed signs of leaning outwards.
The architect Giuseppe Sacconi wrote that “The Holy House stands partly resting on the edge of an ancient road and partly suspended over the adjoining ditch”, and - not trusting in the continuation of such a miracle - ordered the construction of a pillar to support “the suspended part”. Evidence of this work (“Annali Santa Casa”, 1925) was recorded during excavations carried out in 1962 - 65.
At last, the time for serious archaeological investigation had arrived.
Between 1955 and 1960 scrupulous archaeological investigations were carried out in Nazareth, promoted by the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in Jerusalem and supervised by Father Bellarmino Bagatti.
In Loreto (1962 - 1965) the work was directed by the archaeologist Nereo Alfieri, aided by Father Floriano Grimaldi, archivist of the shrine, and the geologist Edmondo Forlani.
The work consisted in the construction of two intersecting tunnels under the Holy House, bringing to light the elaborate work which had gone into constructing the underground walls, and other valuable data. The team involved described the work as preceding the “bono et grosso” (good thick) wall built in the early fourteenth century.
A most important discovery was the graffiti found on the stones of the Holy House. These had first been noticed by Ms Gugliemina Ronconi (1864 - 1936), but no further study had been made. The graffiti became a subject for examination much later (1962 - 1965), during the archaeological investigations carried out by Nereo Alfieri, following the discoveries made by Father Bellarmino Bagatti concerning graffiti in Nazareth.
The theology concerning angels, and archaeological findings
1) The absence of foundations
The first observation to be made concerning the tradition that the Holy House was translated by angels is that the angelic beings - who are undoubtedly able to transport bodies from one place to another - chose such an unsuitable spot (the unstable terrain of Prodo hill) on which to deposit the Holy House, an action which goes against their reasoning capacities.
To place such a building - heavy filled-cavity walls with no supporting foundations - without first evaluating the suitability of the terrain, when there were many more suitable sites available, including public land, shows a lack of forethought on the part not of angelic beings but of humans.
The Holy House was placed on Colle Prodo without foundations in order to respect the situation in Nazareth, since in Nazareth the House stood on a rock and there are no traces of foundations. We should add that it is feasible that the extremely thick walls of the House were themselves sufficient foundation.
The walls to north and south measure 80/90 cm., the west wall about 100 cm.: these are the three “Nazarene” walls. These measurements are exactly in keeping with Palestinian houses dating from the time of Christ’s life.
The unsuitability of the terrain was immediately obvious on the northern side, which stood on the edge of a bank, necessitating the speedy construction of underground walls. Later, the walls were raised above their original “Nazarene” height (between 2,90 m. and 3 m.) since it was evident that a number of stones were missing, doubtless carried away as holy relics and replaced with bricks; and at this stage it became necessary to construct further underground walls to shore up the bank on the north side of the House. When this work was carried out it became very evident that the Holy House had no foundations, and this fact became a permanent feature of the annals.
Subsequently a wall was built, “bono et grosso”, of bricks made according to the measurements (30/33 cm x 14 x 6/8, save for local variations) currently in use in the Middle Ages, from the eighth to the tenth century; half a foot wide and a foot long (the Roman foot measured 29,65 cm.; the international measure is 30,48 cm.),
This wall, about 60 cm. wide and very solid since lime mortar had been used, surrounded the Holy House to protect it from bad weather and also to reinforce the parts subject to subsidence, on the north side. The “bono et grosso” wall is attached to the wall of the Holy House. On the north side it is attached to the part at risk of subsidence; otherwise it is a few centimetres distant.
In building the vault with the aim to reinforce the northern part of the wall, as a precaution, they made a tie rod, following the line of the interior wall of the Holy House. You can see it still now.
2) Interpenetration of bodies: impossible for angels
In the Byzantine Basilica built in the fifth century, and in the eleventh-century Crusaders’ Church, the Holy House adjoining the grotto was situated in the crypt, accessible by two small doors (in the course of time, one door disappeared and only the west door remained). At the time of the translation of the House in 1291, the crypt was still in existence, unlike the basilica above it which had been almost entirely demolished in1263 by Alan ed-Din Tybar, the deputy of the Sultan of Cairo, Bajbars Bandokan. The angels, therefore, in order to remove the precious relic passing through the two small doors, would have had to take it apart and carry it away piecemeal, given that angels do not have the power of interpenetration of bodies. In short, the angels would have had to do as the Crusaders did.
These two simple theological observations are based on the results of archaeological excavations carried out in Nazareth and in Loreto.
The Angeli or De Angeli family
The Angeli family, or De Angeli as it became subsequently known, was named as responsible for the translation of the Holy House, by Porfirij Uspenskij (1804 - 1885), one of the great scholars of the Christian East; he visited Loreto in1854. He cites the Angeli family as part of the history of the Holy House of Loreto. According to Porfirij the Angeli family had merely made a copy of the Nazareth house. This is clearly pure conjecture. What is surprising is that he names the Angeli family at a time when their name had not yet been disclosed. It may be that he came across it in the Vatican archives. Or he may have consulted a copy of folio 181 of “Chartularium Culisanense” belonging to the Angeli or De Angeli family of Collesano (Palermo). The folio was scrupulously preserved in Formiello, Naples.
But the Angeli family only really comes into the picture through a diary written by the Bishop of Dijon, Maurice Landrieux, who on the 17th May 1900 recorded that Giuseppe Lapponi, Chief Physician to Pope Leo XIII, had confided to him that he had found in the Vatican archives the papers referring to Loreto. In these papers it was recorded that the Angeli family, a branch of the imperial family of Constantinople, held numerous possessions in Palestine. In the thirteenth century there was a massive attack by the troops under Al-Asharaf Khalil, the Sultan of Egypt, a member of the Bahri dynasty who were Kipčaki ethnic Turks, and the family was anxious to save the precious records of its property. (There is no historic record of these possessions, which leads to the conclusion that they were lands and property gained during the Crusades, and were therefore subject to the course of the wars). The family provided the funds to ensure that a number of Crusaders could take the Holy House of Nazareth to a place of safety; they took it to Loreto.
According to the Bishop of Dijon, this was the origin of a historic misunderstanding which confused angels in flight transporting the House and the Angeli who organised and financed the removal of the House by Crusaders. The extract from Maurice Landrieux’s diary was not published until 1959.
Giuseppe Lapponi feared to go against Pope Leo XIII, who believed in the angelic intervention, and therefore did not leave a record of whereabouts in the archives were to be found the documents he had discovered: probably his silence was imposed on him by such figures as Albert Battandier, a Prelate of His Holiness.
The same discovery, perhaps in the same papers, was made by Henri Thèdenat, who in 1905 confided to Professor Larquat, a former lecturer at the Catholic University, that he had found in the Vatican archives a record of the cost of transporting the Holy House on board a ship chartered by the Degli Angeli family. The stones had been dismantled and collected with great care, all numbered to ensure faithful rebuilding. This piece of information appeared only in 1962 in a French journal; in Italy it was made public only in 1963.
Numerous searches have been carried out in the Vatican archives, but the documents consulted by Lapponi and by Henri Thèdenat have never come to light. Presumably they were removed to another section of the archives, possibly because the archivists feared they might be forgeries, given that they personally believed in the translation by angels.
Voices ready to contradict what Lapponi had confided in private were not long in being raised, and official channels imposed silence on him. Indeed, in 1906 (the year in which Lapponi confided his discovery to the Bishop of Dijon), Albert Battandier, Prelate of His Holiness, and two directors of the Vatican Library, confirmed the existence, in the Vatican, of documents attesting the miracle of the translation by angels; but even if this is true, it does not invalidate Lapponi’s affirmations.
Coins brought to light during the excavations of 1962 - 65
Numerous coins were found underneath the building, recording that even as early as the beginning of the fourteenth century the shrine was visited by pilgrims coming not only from nearby Ancona, Ascoli Piceno, and Camerino but also from Germany, following the pilgrim roadroute which led to the Grotto of St Michael Archangel on the Gargano promontory, and from there to the Holy Land. Also found were two coins inscribed with the words Gui Dux Atenes. Guy II de La Roche, the son of Guillaume II Duke of Athens, was Regent from 1280 to1287. In 1275 Guillaume married Elena Angeli, the daughter of Giovanni Angeli Prince of Thessaly; she also had family connections with the Komnenos and Doukas families. These connections meant that the Angeli family became relatives of the Emperors of Constantinople and Epirus. On the death of her husband in 1287 Elena Angeli became Regent of the Duchy of Athens on behalf of her son Guy; she remained Regent until 1294, that is, throughout the time during which the translation of the Holy House took place. The presence of these two coins is not a chance occurrence; they testify to the presence of the Angeli family as supervisors of the event. Only a very high authority could have obtained a stay of the Recanati law which forbade putting up any building on a public road, the penalty being the immediate demolishment of the building in question.
Folio 181, part of “Chartularium Culisanense”, became known in 1985 on the initiative of Father Pasquale Rinaldi of Santa Caterina Church at Formiello, Naples, where a copy of “Chartularium Culisanense”, dated 1859, was to be found in the archives, and of Father Giuseppe Santarelli.
This collection, “Chartularium Culisanense”, should not be considered a repository in which all the documents contained are authentic, but the authenticity of folio 181 has been very strictly questioned and examined, from both the philological and the historical aspect, and has stood up well to all the objections raised against it. It is not clear how folio 181 came to be part of Chartularium. The original Chartularium was taken to Rimini at the outbreak of World War Two (1939 – 45) and was placed for safekeeping at the villa belonging to Princess Ester Chiavarello-De Angelis, but it was subsequently destroyed in the first bombardment of Rimini, on November 1st 1943.
The folio lists all the goods given to Philippe d’Anjou, prince of Taranto, son of Charles II King of Naples, as the dowry for Ithamar on his marriage to Marguerite, daughter of Nikephoros I Angeli-Komnenos despot of Epirus. The marriage took place in September or October 1294, the date of the arrival in Le Marche region of the Holy House.
The folio is undated, but the date can be deduced from the marriage. The document is only a list of fifty-two items of the dowry. The first three items are most important:
1) A gold ornament for the head, fused with a nail from the Cross of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
2) The holy stones removed from the house of Our Lady the Virgin Mary Mother of God.
3) A wooden panel painting, showing the Madonna Virgin Mother of God holding on her lap the Infant Jesus, Our Lord and Saviour.
Points two and three are absolutely exact. The house at Nazareth included the grotto, so only the stones of the house were removed, not the whole house. Further, the panel painting showing the Madonna and Child is the very first icon to have been placed in the Holy House of Loreto.
This examination establishes that the translation of the House by angelic intervention actually came about through the personal good offices of the Angeli family.
Faced with the imminent failure of the Third Crusade and the loss of the fortified harbour of St John d’Acre, a group of Crusaders, financed by the noble family, undertook an enterprise which could only have been brought to fruition through faith in the assistance of the Madonna. To carry the materials of the Holy House by cart from Nazareth to the harbour of St John d’Acre and then load them on to a ship - and this in time of war - was indeed an undertaking. The work was done with the maximum scrupulousness, too, as is evident from the Roman numerals which can still be seen scratched on the stones to facilitate an accurate reconstruction. Other stones were marked with coal.
The stages of the translation
The Crusader Basilica of the Annunciation, as we have already seen, had been almost completely destroyed in the year 1263, but the crypt, where the Holy House was preserved, remained intact. Those pilgrims who visited Nazareth before 1291, date of the translation, record the presence of the Holy House, whereas after 1291 the pilgrims mention only the grotto.
The army of Sultan Al-Asharaf Khalil reached St John d’Acre on15th March 1291 and conquered the fortified harbour on May 18th. Tradition has it that the translation of the Holy House by angels took place during the night of 12th May 1291, six days before the harbour fell. This date can be accepted as correct, since it accords with known events.
According to the tradition of angelic intervention, the House was moved four times, either because the faithful did not honour the Madonna, or because pilgrims were subjected to robbery and ill-treatment, or on account of the quarrel between two brothers over the income from the presence of the Holy House.
The historic question is whether these movements were really owing to such human vicissitudes which could not be resolved except by removing the House after it had already been rebuilt, or whether they were not rather in function of the route to be followed and the decisions to be made concerning the materials of the House.
As regards the transportation of the Holy House by sea with the intervention of the Crusaders, it can be said that the material of the Holy House was moved in two successive stages: first from St John d’Acre to Epirus, and then from Epirus to Porto Recanati. In Epirus the material was held up for some years (see folio 181 in “Chartularium Culisamense”), waiting to be rebuilt elsewhere. At the same time, veneration for these holy stones could not be lacking. Once the material reached the harbour of Porto Recanati it was held up once more until a suitable site was chosen: the choice fell on Colle Prodo, where according to tradition the House was rebuilt by 10th December 1294.
The arrival of the materials of the Holy House in Recanati
The question as to why the Holy House was brought to Recanati and not elsewhere is very old, but it is now possible to suggest a historical explanation.
The holy stones referred to in folio 181 had to be kept somewhere, and the explanation lies in the vicissitudes surrounding the Pope of the time, Celestine V, elected on July 5th 1294. Celestine never reached his See in Rome because of the Anjou rulers in Naples who had supported his nomination. In Rome Pope Celestine was represented by his Vicarius Urbis, who was also the Bishop of Recanati. He was the Dominican Father Salvo or Salvio, who had been charged with a most important mission from Pope John XXI to the Emperor of Constantinople, from 1276 to 1277. The Angeli family, who ruled Epirus, was a branch of the Emperor’s family, so the Dominican was no stranger to them. The most probable hypothesis as to where the stones of the Holy House went is that they were donated to the Holy See: that the Vicarius Urbis had many powers including overseeing relics lends weight to this theory. The Bishop of Recanati decided to translate this most important relic, the Holy House, to the harbour at Recanati, which had been functioning since 1229. Recanati was in the Papal State.
One may ask, “But why was colle Prodo chosen?” Simply because the hilltop position gave a view over the sea.
The materials of the Holy House: stones and bricks
The materials of the Holy House appear to be recovered materials previously used many times for buildings in the Nazareth area. The stones of the inner walls were evidently made using two different types of Nabataean workmanship, unknown in the West, and there is also a large stone worked with a herringbone design, in a style used for the homes of high-ranking Nabataeans.
On the outer surface of the walls of the Holy House, regarding the "Nazarene" height, bricks were found as well as rough-hewn stones. During the archaeological excavations of 1962 - 65 the outer wall could be seen in the space left by the partial demolition of the “bono et grosso” wall; that is, between the original wall of the Holy House and the marble wall of Bramante’s shrine.
In the photographs taken by the archaeologists, a number of bricks displaced by subsidence can be seen. There is a brick one and a half feet long and half a foot wide. This is the lydion type of brick, which originated in Lydia, Asia Minor, and was adopted by the Romans who called it sesquipede. The lime rendering makes it impossible to identify further areas of bricks. The archaeologists noted that the rendering was carried out in order to protect the wall of the Holy House before the “bono et grosso” wall was built; and they also noted that the walls cemented with mortar made from agricultural earth were strengthened by injecting lime mortar.
The sesquipede brick is very different from the bricks used to build the “bono et grosso” wall, and from the size of the bricks used for the little church of “Santa Maria in Fondo Laureti”, in the place known as “La Banderuola”, near Porto Recanati. (This church was built in 1939 - 40, but it also includes part of the wall of an ancient building dating from the eleventh century. The surviving fragment is the rectilinear flooring, showing that the church had no apse). The bricks of the ancient part of the “Banderuola” church are one foot and a quarter in length (approximately 37 cm.) and half a foot (approximately 14/15 cm) wide. The variations in size are caused by shrinkage of the materials during drying and firing.
It is easy to discover the size of the bricks used for the “Banderuola” church by examining some of the pillars of the porch (dated 1580) and of the north wall of the Apostolic Palace, which show continuity of size over a certain length of time.
The lydion brick and the stones lead us to support the authentic Nazarene nature of the external face of the filled cavity wall, up to the “Nazarene” height.
In the territory extending from Monte Conero to the river Tronto there is no evidence of stones being used for building; only bricks. To find stones for building would have involved exorbitant transport costs.
It should be noted that the original inside walls of the Holy House contain a number of bricks, especially on the west side, where as many as twelve graffiti can be found on bricks.
In Palestine it was easy to improvise kilns for firing small quantities of bricks, since clay, water for mixing, and wood for the fire were all easily available. (See G. Campis, in “Enciclopedia della Bibbia”, Torino-Leuman, 1970, vol IV, under the heading ‘mattone’). Clay was plentiful and was used to cover house roofs, which were flat. Decisions were made according to transport costs: which was more economical, using stones from a quarry or making bricks? In the case of the Holy House this logistical-economical question did not arise, since the materials used are evidently recovered materials from a number of different sources. We should not forget that Nazareth was near the plain of Esdrelon where bricks were inexpensive. We should obviously believe that the Crusaders intended from the beginning to build the missing fourth wall and would undoubtedly have carried the necessary materials with them from the territory of Nazareth; the provenance was important to them. (Here we can find something in common with the legend of angelic transportation of the House, a legend which states that the House, as a church, was translated all in one piece, including the fourth wall, from Nazareth).
Filled cavity walls structure
The thickness of the inside walls worked in Nabataean stones varies: one stone visible in a niche in the House is exceptionally wide, measuring 37,5 cm. It is estimated that the average thickness of the Nabataean stones was 25 cm. The exterior surface of the filled cavity wall can be estimated from the thickness of a longitudinal course of bricks, but there are also bricks laid at right angles to the wall, to make it more solid. The intermediate space is about 40 cm.
The cavity within the wall is filled with fragments of bricks and stones. The mortar used both for the peripheral sections of the cavity walls and for filling in is a mixture of “terra agraria” compatible with the soil of the plain at the foot of Colle Prodo hill. This same mortar is found in many parts of the interior walls of the Holy House and is noted in the archaeologists’ report dated 1962 - 1965. The use of earth mortar as a binder for walls in the area of Cana in Galilee was noted by Franciscan friar: “Libro quinto del padre Francesco da Perinaldo, visitante la Terra Santa a Ferdinando II Re del regno delle due Sicilie e titolare del trono di Gerusalemme” published by Fratelli Fernando, Genova 1855. Reprinted by Nabu Press 2012.
The stones worked in the Nabataean style are inside the House. This style of workmanship served presumably to increase the adherence of the plaster, which was made from earth mortar probably reinforced with lime. It can be supposed that the plaster on the interior walls was more refined, while that of the exterior walls was more rough. The House of Nazareth was therefore plastered (Cf. Leviticus 14,42-48) and whitewashed, like all houses in Palestine, and had only one floor and a flat roof. When it was encompassed within first Judaeo-Christian architecture, then Byzantine, and finally in a Crusader building, it had this appearance, except for the plastering which had crumbled over time.
The corners formed where the north and south walls meet the west wall give the impression that the stones were placed edge to edge, but this is an impression given by smudges of the lime and chalk mortar and by subsequent touching-up. A closer look after rubbing the smudges with water shows that in reality the stones criss-cross, though not all of them and not all to the same depth.
Where the north wall and the west wall meet, low down on the right-hand side there can be seen two large stones placed at right angles with only the corners touching. The thickness of these stones is about 15 cm. The stones worked in the Nabataean style, in the part which can be touched by visitors, have been polished over the centuries by the hands of many devoted pilgrims.
Placing the House on Colle Prodo
According to Pseudo Jerome (9th century), whose influence was widely felt throughout the Christian West, the Virgin Mary was born in Nazareth. This was confirmed by the Congregation of Rites on 12 April 1916. Traditionally, Mary was miraculously conceived by an already elderly sterile couple and as their only child she inherited her father’s house on their death, and went to live there at the time of her betrothal to Joseph. This matches the account given in St Luke’s Gospel where we are told that the Angel of the Annunciation appeared to Mary in Nazareth (Luke 1,26.56), and that after the visitation to St Elisabeth, Mary returned to her own home.
The length/width proportions (4,07 x 9,52 m.) of the Holy House of Loreto are those found in houses in Palestine; and at the same time, the part in Nabataean worked stone in the light of a 60° diagonal (the diagonal however gives only a general geometric guideline, which does not match the ends of the Nabataean worked stone walls; in reality the diagonal reaches 6,92 m, while the part in Nabataean stone measures 7,24 - 7,37 m., an average of 7,30), shows proportions still to be found in Palestinian houses. This data requires some explanation. In the crypt of the Crusader basilica the Holy House was set between two pillars (one at the left-hand side of the grotto, somewhat intrusive) about 9,00 m. apart, calculating from the drawings to scale. If we take the thickness of the south wall to have been 0,90 m. and we add 7,30 m. we arrive at a figure of 8,20 m. to which we must add 0.80 m. This demonstrates that even while it was still in Nazareth the grotto was reached by a different type of wall.
Undoubtedly the plan of Loreto shows a further lengthening of the join with the grotto making the interior space measure 9,52 m., against the original measurement in Nazareth of about 8,10 m. This further prolongation of 1,42 m. perhaps shows that there was a plan to recover part of the space occupied by the pillar at the left-hand side of the grotto.
The material necessary for this intervention had to be brought from Nazareth, considering also that it would be necessary to build a fourth wall to replace the grotto which at that time took the place of the missing wall. We cannot know what was the history of the Holy House after the evangelical facts. Tradition holds that the Holy House was turned into a domus ecclesiae and it is therefore highly probable that alterations were made, including the demolition of partitions.
The House was connected to the grotto, which functioned as additional space, in keeping with many other houses in Nazareth, with the longitudinal axis north (grotto) - south; this differs from Loreto which is on the east-west axis. This rotation is a further proof of the translation of the Holy House. It is an anomaly that the access door in Loreto should face north, not admitting the light of the sun, while in Nazareth it faced – much more felicitously - west. The window which in Loreto faces west, in Nazareth was positioned exposed to the sun, that is to say, facing south.
There was some doubt about plans for Colle Prodo: the archaeological excavations of 1962 - 65 brought to light the basic layout of a small apse situated on the east side, adjoining (though not structurally connected to) the north and south walls and tangentially connected to the east wall. This apse shows an edge made from two rows of bricks shaped to trace a circumference, but should not be read as the first layout of the east wall, that is, like the missing wall in Nazareth.
The small apse should rather be interpreted as a reference to the grotto in Nazareth or as a niche in which to place the image of the Madonna and Child. This idea, the small apse, did not meet with favour and was demolished - if it was ever actually built - giving way to a rectangular plan (4,10 x 9,52 m.). This little apse would have to have been built at the same time as the walls were made higher, as otherwise it could not have developed in height, and after the erection of the east wall. It was considered an unsuitable solution as it took away from the House valuable liturgical space.
The suggestion that the apse formed part of a very early small Church, preceding the Holy House, is untenable, both because the archaeological excavations have not revealed any trace of walls adjoining the apse, and because the Holy House was built on a road, near which the excavations have uncovered Roman burial places.
Increasing the height of the “Nazarene” walls
The height of the Holy House of Nazareth in Loreto is approximately double (4,30 m.) its width. This was a project carried out very soon after the reassembling of the Holy House.
The ancient wall of the present “Banderuola” church, “Sancta Maria in Fundo Laureti” (Fundo Laureti from the name traditionally ascribed to the owner of the property, a farm), shares substantial features with the bricks used for the additional section of the walls of the Holy House. It has been suggested that the bricks of the little church, which was probably in ruins in 1294/1300, were used for the Holy House.
However, it can be seen that the bricks of the Holy House are of a uniform light brown colour, while those of the little church – part of which remains – are of various colours: red, yellow, brown, showing that the temperature of the firing varied, that the kiln used was rudimentary, and that different clays were used. The colour of the bricks used for the Holy House, on the contrary, shows uniform firing. The bricks must have come from a more advanced type of kiln in which the heat was well distributed; the temperature reached must have been over 1000 degrees in order to obtain the light brown colour. The bricks in the two rows outlining the unfinished apse show that the bricks used for the Holy House must have been newly made and could not have been recovered materials.
The fire which broke out in 1921 touched the surface of the bricks (soundings have revealed hardening and vitrification in some places, caused by the high temperature generated by the fire) but did not destroy the overall evenness of the colour.
The existence of the “Sancta Maria in Fundo Laureti” church is unequivocally documented prior to the translation of the Holy House; there are documents dated 1181, 1194, and 1253, which note that the church was not far from an area which was becoming progressively more and more marshy. An inventory dated 1285 records that “Sancta Maria in Fundo Laureti” at that time was the property of the Bishop of Recanati, and included sowable land (3 modiolos - a modiolo was equivalent to 3119,83 sq.m. - et 7 staria. The staria is a measurement of volume, which varies from one region to another. In this case we may assume that seven staria of grain equals about 2,5 quintals, corresponding to the sowing of approximately a hectare of land).
It is most unlikely that between 1285 and the work on the walls of the Holy House (about fifteen years later) the little church was reduced to such a state of ruin as to be usable only as a source of building material.
Furthermore, the bricks of the ancient church of Sancta Maria in Fundo Laureti were cemented together with lime mortar, while the additional section of the walls of the Holy House are cemented with earth mortar, in keeping with the lower “Nazarene” section.
The wooden architrave of the original door (now sealed with material recovered from the new opening), the beams supporting the joists of the ceiling which preceded the present vaulting, and other items of wood have been carbon dated and are shown to come from between the tenth and twelfth centuries. There are elements of well-seasoned wood which would have been available in the Colle Prodo area.
The east wall, as seen from a photograph taken after the 1921 fire (now concealed by the floral gratings), has the features – as far as can be seen – of an opus spicatum, otherwise know as herringbone, a type of brickwork frequently found in Palestine, but not in the Recanati area. The opus spicatum of the north wall is structurally slapdash, giving the impression that it was a layer added to the load-bearing wall; nevertheless, it should be carefully preserved as a relic. The material used came very probably, at least in part, from the two doors opened to make an exit for the faithful, and therefore has value as a relic.
The Apostles’ altar
The Apostles’ altar is below the present altar and is protected by a metal grating. The parallelepiped base is made from stones worked in the Nabataean style and is surmounted by a stone table. It is known as the Apostles’ altar because, we are told, the Apostles were in the habit of celebrating the Eucharist in the House in Nazareth. The altar is Paleochristian, built when the House of the Annunciation became a place not only for visitors but also a place of prayer where the liturgy was celebrated: that is, a domus ecclesiae.
The plaster, the Judaeo-Christian graffiti, and the fourteenth-fifteenth century frescos
When the Crusaders dismantled the Holy House of Nazareth it was already without plaster. In the interior could be seen stones worked in the Nabataean style. The faithful left graffiti on the stones, and these are to be found in Loreto. The graffiti are Judaeo-Christian and correspond very closely to those found in Nazareth by archaeologists.
At Loreto the plaster was not replaced; nevertheless, from a height of 2,50 m., and in a small stretch lower down, there are traces of frescos so there must be a layer of plaster for frescos.
The frescos date from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries at the latest; the state of preservation varies from one to another, but much of the plaster has become detached.
There are six images of the Madonna, seated, and Child. However, they are not boring or repetitive since the relationship between Mother and Child varies, so that the six almost seem to be photographs. There are also two images of St Antony Abbot: in one version he is sitting on an abbot’s chair, in the other he appears to be walking. Other saints appear only once: St Catherine of Alexandria, St John the Evangelist, St Louis IX king of France holding the chains which represent his imprisonment during the seventh Crusade; St George, St Francis or St Antony, and St Bartholomew holding the knife which symbolises his martyrdom and a book of the Holy Scriptures, in keeping with Eastern Christian tradition.
The use of votive frescos ceased after a hundred years or so. The “bono et grosso” wall too was frescoed on the outer face, as the archaeologists noted in 1962 - 65.
Pope Julius II (1503 - 1513) ordered that the Holy House be enclosed in a splendid marble reliquary. In 1507 he commissioned Bramante to carry out the work; Bramante drew up the plans and a wooden model was then fashioned by the Florentine Antonio Pellegrini in 1509.
Pope Julius II was greatly devoted to the shrine at Loreto. On the 17 January 1511, during the siege of Mirandola, a cannonball fired from the town walls and deliberately aimed at him, narrowly missed him. Pope Julius sent the cannonball as an ex-voto to Loreto. It can be seen hanging on the wall, high up on the right, inside the Holy House.
In 1513 the model was presented to Pope Leo X, who was pleased with it. In June 1513 Leo X commissioned Andrea Sansovino to carry out the work. From 1531 onwards, the work was entrusted to Raniero Nerucci and Antonio Sangallo the Younger. The sculptor Giovan Battista della Porta also contributed subsequently, working on the project until 1572.
The “bono et grosso” wall was demolished, but not completely. A part remains on the north side, as can be seen from the space between the wall of the Holy House and the supporting wall of the marbles of the Shrine; there is a difference in the thickness of the entrance door to the Shrine (north) and the exit (south). At the north end the thickness is 2,20 m., at the south end 1,52 m.
The thickness of 2,20 m. at the north end made it possible to build a spiral staircase giving access to the roof of the Shrine. Access to the staircase is by the door on the right symmetric to the north door.
The marble wall of the reliquary was flanked by an anchorage wall in brick, built touching the wall of the Holy House, except on the north side, as we have seen, because of the remains of the “bono et grosso” wall. The sloping roof and the ceiling below was eliminated and replaced by the present barrel vaulting.
About seventy years were required to complete this amazing work of art, the Reliquary Shrine of the Holy House.
The image of the Madonna
The earliest image of the Madonna and Child was a panel painting, according to folio 181, and according to the words of Giacomo Ricci, who mentions a "painting". A wooden statue was subsequently carved, but was carried away by Napoleon, who ordered the sack of the shrine in 1797, and displayed in the Louvre. The image was restored to Loreto on December 8 1802, but was destroyed in the fire of 1921.
The statue of the Madonna and Child has the peculiarity of being dressed in a dalmatic, and is black because that is the colour of the wood used - cedar of Lebanon - and because this echoes the words of the Song of Solomon (1,5-6): “I am black but comely… Look not upon me because I am black, because the sun has looked upon me”. The sun is God, who has invested with His light and His warmth the Mother of God.
The following texts were consulted
Floriano Grimaldi, “La historia della chiesa di Santa Maria de Loreto”, ed. Carilo, Cassa di Risparmio di Loreto, 1993.
Alfieri N., Forlani E., Grimaldi F., “Contributi archeologici per la storia della Santa Casa di Loreto”, Loreto, 1967.
Monelli Nello, “La Santa Casa a Loreto - La Santa Casa a Nazaret”, Loreto, 1997.
Giuseppe Santarelli, “La Santa Casa di Loreto”, Loreto, 2014. Giuseppe Santarelli, “Loreto. L’altra metà di Nazaret”, ed. Terra Santa, Milano, 2016.