Sunday, April 08, 2007

Dave Sim's blogandmail #209 (April 8th, 2007)

A Brief Examination of the

Sanctuario della Santa Casa

at Loreto, Italy

This was my first exposure to the Santa Casa, purportedly the childhood home of Jesus, in the tourist literature sent to me by Billy Beach along with an invitation to visit him and his family back in 2004 just after Cerebus finished:

The great dome of the Sanctuario della Santa Casa dominates the countryside for miles around; below [the English is a little flawed as is often the case in Italy: what they mean is "under" in the same sense that the burial place of St. Peter is reputedly "under" the Vatican's Dome of St. Peter] it stands the focus of piety – the rustic cottage from Nazareth that witnessed the Annunciation and the childhood of Jesus (see the tradition of the Holy House below).

Although the Santa Casa arrived, according to tradition, in 1294, it was not until 1507 that the Church finally approved of Loreto as a place of pilgrimage, though work on the church had begun in 1468. It was Pope Julius II who decided to pull out all the stops and give the primitive cottage a fit setting.

The result is a showcase of work by many of the most celebrated names of Late Renaissance Italy and gives even the unbeliever good reason to come here. Started on gothic lines, later architects including Bramante and Sansovino gave the church a thorough Late Renaissance treatment.

Inside, under the dome, is the great marble facing that protects the Holy House, carried out in the 16th Century to Bramante's designs by the great medal-designer Gian Cristoforo Romano, Andrea Sansovino and Antonio da Sangallo the Younger. Note how around its base centuries of kneeling pilgrims have worn furrows in the marble.

The curious statue within the walls of the Santa Casa of the Black Madonna of Loreto is a modern copy of the original destroyed in a fire in 1921; some claim that the tradition of the Black Madonnas to be found in the many famous shrines is a reference to the prophetic line referring to Mary in the Song of Solomon, "I am black, but comely"; others more prosaically point out that the statues were often carved in dark hardwoods, later further blackened by the smoke of votive candles.

I always admire the artfulness with which the Church circumnavigates these kinds of things. "Curious" is usually a discrete euphemism for "suspect" or "possibly suspect". And it is certainly a jarring note to arrive within the confines of the Holy House and find it dominated by a statue of a black woman with a black baby. "What must the pilgrims of the Late Renaissance have made of that?" It almost has a quality of the pagan mystery cults about it in that way, where the innermost sanctuary would contain something that would reveal a Large Secret when you got there (which usually wasn't much of a secret). In this case: "Mary was a negro? Jesus was a negro?" would certainly qualify as a major secret if it was true or if it was taken that way. The "dark hardwoods" cover story you could maybe get away with but "further blackened by the smoke of votive candles" to me smacks of clutching at straws in order to scrupulously not see what is self-evidently there: "Mary was a negro? Jesus was a negro?"

At the bottom of the right nave are the church's greatest artistic treasures – gem-stone coloured frescoes in the Sacristy of St. Mark by Merlozzo da Forli' and Luca Singorelli's noble frescoes in the nearby Sacristy of St. John. Piazza della Madonna, the elegant set-piece square with a delicate Baroque fountain that fronts the Sanctuary is flanked on two sides by the arcades of the 16th Century Palazzo Apostolico.

The Museo-Pinacoteca inside preserves a fine group of late works by Lorenzo Lotto (the Venetian master retired and died in the monastery here in 1556) [I think what they mean is "The Venetian master retired to the monastery here where he died in 1556"] and an unusual collection of Renaissance ceramic pharmacist's jars. Hidden away in a corner are also some 70 carved blocks of box-wood used until the 1940s to stamp designs on pilgrims' bodies which were then indelibly tattooed as permanent souvenirs of their pilgrimage to Loreto.

I'd have to call that a Wayne's World "E Squeeze Me?" moment. They stamped designs on pilgrims' bodies which were then indelibly tattooed as souvenirs and they did this up until the 1940s? The Catholic Church did this? Things like that make it very hard to see the whole enterprise except through Billy's eyes where he notes that the arcades of the Palazzo Apostolico are taken up almost entirely with gift shops selling what are basically icons and other permutations of idolatry and where, presumably, there was also housed a tattoo parlour or two up until the 1940s where they could make your souvenir body design stamp permanent. Maybe they could revive it with "I went to the Holy House and all I got was this lousy tattoo" body designs.

The simple cottage at Nazareth where the Annunciation took place and where the Holy Family lived, so the legend goes, was borne away by angels in 1291 as the Saracens [i.e. Muslims] descended on the Holy Land.

It first arrived in Dalmatia. Here it stayed until the 10th of December 1294, when it was again miraculously moved, this time across the Adriatic Sea to a laurel grove (Latin lauretum, hence Loreto) infested by bandits.

Its final resting place, though, was a few miles away in the middle of a public highway on the top of the hill of Loreto. Experts in our more skeptical age now suggest that the bricks of Mary's house were brought from Palestine in the ships of the retreating Crusaders. To this day, the marchigiani light enormous bonfires on the eve of the 10th of December, the Feast of the Translation of the Holy House, to help the Santa Casa on its way.

Loreto is the centre of devotion to the blessed Virgin Mary, thanks to the famous shrine enclosing the Holy House (Santa Casa).

It is a very finely nuanced faith. "Devotion" to the blessed Virgin Mary which might or might not constitute "worship" or Worship. Finely nuanced and capable of being a little disconcerting. A woman entered the Holy House a few minutes after Billy and I had arrived (it will comfortably hold maybe a half dozen people at a time if three of them are praying) and promptly started weeping loudly. The walls of the "ancient cottage" are very distinctive. What is remarkable is the many varied colours of stone and brick that make it up (and which made me, even at the time, realize that I wanted to draw and/or do a small painting of a section of it some day). The photos that Bill had sent were interesting in particular because in them the walls are flood-lit – I mean they really cranked up the wattage to shoot these babies. As I said about my Star Wars commission, when you are working on something for that long you tend to get immersed in very deep questions about its content.

"How in the world did an Italian bank get permission, first of all, to photograph the interior of the Holy House and second of all to use high-ampage flood lighting in proximity to the fading frescoes?" The frescoes themselves – there is a definite enthroned (!) Madonna and child with an unnamed figure (Joseph?) and another figure (Archangel Gabriel?) adjacent that look like they `re from 900s to 1100s when images in paintings were all very flat and stylized -- pose interesting questions. I assume that they weren't there originally (Mary: Here's a shot of me with Jesus when he was about six months old. Joseph: Isn't he cute?) which raises the question: when WERE they put there?

An obvious guess is that Mary's house after her death became a natural site of Christian worship and veneration and pilgrimage and someone in the early Church at some point decided that it should contain an image of Mary and Jesus for the same reason that Churches ostensibly made paintings a core element of their altars over the years, as a focus of prayer (which can easily become a form of idolatry which is why such images are shunned in Judaism and Islam). Of course the frescoes – which are created by painting directly onto wet plaster -- are fragmentary and irregularly shaped which perplexed me for a long time since they look as if they are partly hidden by the bricks and stonework. It was only while drawing them that I thought about it the other way around: at some point part of the facing walls had started to give way or crumble and needed to be plastered and the early Church fathers decided that as long as patches needed to be plastered on they might as well be decorated with frescoes at the same time.

One of the other things I noticed while working on the cover that had escaped me when I was there is that the upper parts of the walls are pretty much intact, regular rows of bricks balanced one on top of the other. The further down the wall you get the further apart the bricks and the stones are and the more mortar (or whatever it is) is needed to fill in the spaces between them. Could it be that the Saracens were descending on the Holy Land a little faster than anyone expected them to? And that the patient brick-by-brick removal and preservation and numbering system eventually gave way to "Just grab a bunch of them and throw them in the cart and let's get the %$#@# out of here!" Inquiring minds want to know and, consequently, end up speculating.

Is it the childhood home of Jesus? It would be nice to think so. It does seem more likely to me that it would be the home of the blessed Virgin where she lived out her days after the crucifixion since that could probably be more definitively placed by the adherents of the early church which was coalescing in those years. Maybe they're the same place. Maybe Mary always lived there from the Annunciation through to her own death at whatever age (did she live to see the sacking of the Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D.?). Its unique character in Christian lore – I can't think of any other building that underwent "Translation" – would seem to suggest that there is at least a kernel of truth or several kernels of truth to the legend and maybe that's all that needed or needs to be communicated from generation to generation.

It's certainly the only instance where I felt compelled to do an exact portrait of a wall. And I imagine it will be the last time that I do so.

Jeff Seiler's always on here so get in touch with him if you want to order an advance copy of Cerebus Readers in Crisis #2 with my cover illustration.


If you wish to contact Dave Sim, you can mail a letter (he does NOT receive emails) to:

Aardvark Vanaheim, Inc
P.O. Box 1674
Station C
Kitchener, Ontario, Canada N2G 4R2

Looking for a place to purchase Cerebus phonebooks? You can do so online through Win-Mill Productions -- producers of Following Cerebus. Convenient payment with PayPal:

Win-Mill Productions

Or, you can check out Mars Import:

Mars Import

Or ask your local retailer to order them for you through Diamond Comics distributors.