Loreto: An Art Treasure House

WHEN THE HOLY Father, Pope John Paul II speaks continuously of the great need of Christianizing our culture, particularly the art and literature, such a need is no more apparent than in the furor created recently over the blasphemous, pagan "art" exhibit that took place in late 1999 in Brooklyn, New York. Art has as one of its objects to lift up the spirit, not to degrade, much less poke fun at the sacred. Over the centuries, Catholic Italy, inspired by such faith, has ever been the center of great art and artists, and the art has been predominantly of a religious nature. The subject of that art is for the most part the Madonna. It is when faith is alive that one will find the greatest masterpieces that men of superior talents have produced.

There is probably no church in Christendom that has such wide and diverse masterpieces as are found in the basilica of Loreto. Artists, popes, and national ethnic groups have vied with each other over the centuries, in holy competition, to produce paintings, tapestries, sculpture and architecture that has made Loreto a treasure house of masterpieces by many famous masters.

It was in the second half of the 15th century that construction of the present great pilgrimage church was undertaken with its cruciform plan and gothic line. The basilica is crowned by the impressive dome of Giuliano da Sangallo, whose work in Florence inspired Michaelangelo. Bramante, who gave St. Peter's in the Vatican its monumental clarity, produced a design for the facade and a four-sided portico facing the church, but little was carried out at the time. Just ten years after the building of the church was begun, two great painters were called to Loreto, Melozzo da Forli and Luca Signorelli, who undertook the fresco decoration of the sacristies of SS. Mark and John.

Starting in 1518, and following a design by Bramante, Andrea Sansovino carried out the marble screen which encases the Holy House; it is adorned with reliefs showing scenes from the life of Mary. The elaboration of this richly ornamented marble work continued up to the last decades of the 19th century. Famous sculptors such as Raffaello da
Montelupo, Nicolo Triholo and Francesco da Sangallo contributed.

The three bronze doors in the facade were also made at the end of the 19th century-----the side ones by local artists and the central one by Antonio Lombardo and his sons. During the 16th century oil paintings and frescoes were painted for the altars by such masters as Lorenzo Lotto, Geralomo Muziano, Pellegrino Tibaldi, Federico Zuccari, Cristoforo Pomarancio and Simon Vouet. Pomarancio also carried out the decoration of the vault of the Treasury. The fountain in the square was the accomplishment of Maderno.

Between 1750 and 1754, Luigi Vanvitelli built the elegant campanile. During the last quarter of the 18th century, nearly all the altars were renovated and large mosaics were substituted for the painted altarpieces. The latter were removed to the Apostolic Palace which also contains a group of other notable paintings as well as a series of nine tapestries woven in Brussels by Henry Mattens between 1620 and 1624. These follow the famous Raphael drawings for the Sistine Chapel paintings.

The interior of the basilica contains the following chapels-----each an artistic masterpiece in its own right. The Massilla chapel is named after the Recanati family who had it decorated in the 16th century with works by Calcagni and Vergelli. The Holy Rosary chapel was restored in 1943 by Steffanina, who also did .the chapel of St. Francis of Paula. The chapel of SS. Emidio and Charles Borromeo was redecorated to commemorate the pilgrimage there of St. Louis Grignon de Montfort. The chapel of the Immaculate Conception depicts the patrons of the young women's Catholic Action. The Mexican chapel depicts the story of Guadalupe, donated by its nationals. The Swiss chapel was decorated between 1936-38 and depicts scenes from the life of Mary and of the Swiss Blesseds and Saints. The elaborate chapel of St. Joseph, the gift of the Spaniards, depicts the life of the virginal foster Father of Jesus.

The frescoes of the Chapel of the Dukes of Urbino were done by Brandano and Zuecari. The chapel holds The Annunciation by Barocci. The Polish chapel was done between 1912-39 and depicts national heroes and Saints devoted to Mary. The largest and richest chapel in frescoes is the German chapel done by Seitz between 1892-1902. Its walls are dedicated to the Virgin Mother of God and the Sorrowful Co-Redemptrix; the ceiling depicts her glorious coronation. The Slavonic chapel tells the story of the missionary brothers SS. Cyril and Methodius. The French chapel presents the visit to Nazareth of St. Louis, King of France, while leading a crusade in the Holy Land.

The chapel of the Crucified is a gift of the Italian people and is decorated with various symbols of the Passion. The large crucifix is a sculpture in wood by the 17th century Franciscan, Innocent of Patralia. It portrays the three phases of Christ on the Cross: living, dying, and the dead Savior. The chapel of St. Therese of Lisieux depicts her pilgrimage to Loreto on November 13, 1887. The chapel of the Holy Name of Jesus has decorations by Bellini. The chapel of St. Michael is decorated with Passionist Saints. The chapel of St. Francis depicts the Capuchin Saints of the Marches. The chapel donated by the Catholics of India has scenes from the life of St. Francis Xavier.

The latest and last chapel to be decorated is that of the Assumption, or the American chapel. The donations to decorate this chapel came through the initiative of the Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima in the United States. The Assumption is portrayed on the ceiling and the wall murals depict the proclamation of the dogma of the Assumption and the American adventure in space. For that reason it is referred to as the aviation chapel. The stained glass window centers on 14 Saints of the Americas and a branch motif unites them with the ogive of the Trinity, Fount of all Holiness. The artist Giuseppe Steffanina chose the theme, "I am the Vine and you the Branches" for this masterpiece.

Thus good art from every land, especially Italy, extending over the last five centuries in chapels of many nations sings once more the prophetic words of St. Elizabeth addressed to Mary: "Behold all generations will call you blessed."

Our Lady of Loreto and Lone Eagle

On May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh completed a nonstop solo transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in 33 hours and 32 minutes. During the time when he was isolated from the rest of the world, he tells us in his memoirs, he prayed. He prayed throughout the voyage and the more his anxiety increased the more he prayed. The New York Times wrote of him: "The more one thinks of the behavior of Lindbergh in Paris, so much the more one arrives at the conclusion that God had a great part in the success of the aviator."

Probably the confidence which sustained the young American aviator throughout his flight was due to a small image of Our Lady of Loreto, proclaimed 7 years previously by Pope Benedict XV, as Patroness of air travelers. Lindbergh had brought the medal on board his plane "The Spirit of St. Louis" before his departure. It was a gift from Father Hussman, pastor of St. Enrico's in St. Louis. Lindbergh accepted the medal with joy and promised to return it as soon as he arrived at his destination, but Father Hussman preferred to leave the blessed medal with the young man known as the Lone Eagle.

The medal was the first to travel across the Atlantic by air and the medal literally saved the young pilot's life. He tells us in his memoirs that he had the medal hung in the cabin of his plane and it was the gentle tapping of this medal against the wall of the cabin which awoke him when he fell asleep.

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