One of the most important Black Madonna shrines in Europe is The Basilica della Santa Casa (Basilica of the Holy House) in Loreto, Italy. Catholics believe that it enshrines the authentic house, where Mary lived, where she heard the Annunciation and also where she lived humbly with Joseph and the little Jesus. The house is believed to have been brought to Loreto by angels.
Numerous architectural copies of the so called “Loretokapelle” (Loreto chapel) sprung up in the seventeenth century in the German speaking part of Europe. Here in Switzerland there are a number of notable Loreto chapels. I wrote about the most famous and the oldest one here:
The first three Loreto chapels were built in 1648 (Hergiswald and Freiburg) and in 1649 (Solothurn). I visited the latter recently and it was an intense experience.
The chapel is situated outside of city walls, close to the Cloister of the Capuchins but also in an open field with a beautiful view of the surrounding cliffs and the local mountain called Weissenstein (the white stone). Approaching the chapel, one feels as if the time had stopped there. The air suddenly feels like syrup; there is an inexplicable feeling of slowness of things. When I was there the chapel and the surrounding area appeared almost deserted although the near-lying city was bustling with Saturday activity. The shrubs and plants outside the chapel oozed heaviness and a certain subterranean feel, though this might be because it was two days after the Autumn Equinox. On the left side of the door leading to the chapel grew a small tree or a shrub known as the common medlar. Along with the pomegranate, which it looks similar to, this is definitely the fruit of the underworld. Medlars are deep russet in colour and do not exactly look fresh. Fascinatingly, this particular fruit is not edible until it starts to rot, which is described by scientists as bletting, that is softening before ripening. In Coorte’s painting below the butterfly, the most common symbol of the soul, hovers over the medlar fruit, symbolizing the rebirth of the soul through putrefaction. The walls of the chapel were also covered in rosehips – the fruit of the rose. Surprisingly, medlars belong to the rose family, too.
It was a sunny day but not a single ray of the sun penetrated the windowless chapel. It felt like a dark cave. There were two doors that let the light in when left open. The theme of deep blood red also continued here with reddish walls, the red robe of the Black Virgin and a bouquet of the winter cherry (Physalis alkekengi) on the altar. Later I read up on the plant in Wikipedia: “In Japan, its bright and lantern-like fruiting calyces form a traditional part of the Bon Festival as offerings intended to help guide the souls of the dead.” We had indeed entered the cave of the goddess of the underworld. I felt torpefied, frozen, like a butterfly pinned to the wall.
Below are a few photos I took.
The spire visible in the first photo is crowned with the image of the Black Madonna resting on a cloud above a crescent moon and surrounded by a radiant halo of the sun. She holds the holy house in her right hand.
The symbolism of the house is strengthened by the so-called Holy Fireplace, which represents the kitchen of the Holy Family. The fireplace is hidden below the image of Mary and might have been used on certain liturgical occasions. Naturally, the kitchen and the hearth are rich in symbolic meaning:
“Wherever the kitchen is in the house, symbolically it evokes the center, for its origin and correspondence is the hearth and magic cauldron, the body’s stomach, the alchemical retort, the psyche’s creative core. Like these, kitchen represents a container in which diverse ingredients undergo processes of chaos and order, merging and separation, heating, cooling, decoction, distillation and transmutation. … Like the hearth, the kitchen is often associated with the feminine as vessel and source.” (1)
As for the hearth, “traditionally, it was seen as a feminine, and most famously as the Greek goddess Hestia, whose origins are so archaic that she was not usually imagined in a human form, but as the hearth itself.” (2) “Attending to one’s own psychic centre” lies at the core of hearth symbolism. (3)
Under the trapdoor in the floor of the chapel is an underground passage that connects to the hermit’s house on the north side of the building. This passage symbolizes the possibility of descending even lower to the underground, dynamic psychic energies of the creative void – the earth mother as both womb (hearth) and tomb (death and rebirth).
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(1) The Book of Symbols, Reflections on Archetypal Images, ARAS, edited by Ami Ronnberg, p. 577
(2) Ibid., p. 578
I used some information from this website while writing my post: