Fact checking the Flying House of Loreto: Early Modern Truth and Doubt

This post is part of the Monster Carnival 2022 – Why Early Modern History Matters Now. Dr Emily Price is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Newcastle University. She tweets at @dremilyprice.

Emily Price

‘Truth isn’t truth.’ Rudy Giuliani on Meet the Press, 19 August 2018

How do we know if something is true? It might seem self-evident: a thing is true if it really happened and we can prove that it happened. But over the last half-decade, especially in my home country, the United States, we’ve been presented with a seeming paradox regarding the nature of truth. Truth is apparently both subjective (some of us simply believe in “alternative facts”) and objective (everyone knows the 2020 presidential election was stolen). These shifting concepts can be very disorienting as we try to make sense of the present and plan for the future.

Early modern people, living through a time of rapid political and religious change, also experienced this disorientation. While both Protestants and Catholics believed in miracles, for example, they differed on how to verify them. People wondered if they could trust the historical record, eyewitness accounts, or even their own senses. In my work, I examine an especially contentious claim relating to the Holy House of the Annunciation, the building within which the Virgin Mary had received the Angel Gabriel and where she and Joseph had raised the infant Christ. It was claimed that after the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem was returned to Muslim control the Holy House had flown from Nazareth to Italy in 1291. Looking at how early modern people attempted to prove this miracle can help us better understand our own complicated, changing relationship with proof and doubt.

In 1488, Peter Argentorix, a nobleman from Grenoble, was making the circuit of southern Europe’s most renowned holy sites with his wife Antonia, seeking a cure for her disordered and violent behaviour. They finally arrived at Loreto, a town on Italy’s Adriatic coast where a mysterious little brick building had suddenly appeared on the public highway. Miracles, visions, and expeditions to the original site proclaimed it to be the actual House of the Virgin.

Loreto Holy House. The little brick house sits inside this elaborately decorated marble screen. Attribution: Parsifall, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

When Antonia entered the basilica and saw the Holy House she balked, and ten strong men had to drag her struggling body over the threshold. There, as a 1597 history of the shrine relates, an exorcist told Peter that his wife was possessed by seven demons. Battling valiantly, the priest drew the spirits out of the suffering woman one by one. The last and most stubborn demon, howling and spitting, cursed the Virgin Mary, crying out that her power was especially potent in that particular place. Curious, the priest questioned the spirit about the house, commanding it to tell the truth; the demon ‘being constrained by vertue of the exorcismes, at last confessed that it was the Chamber of the Mother of God, where she conceiued Almightie God by the foretelling of Gabriel.’ It even pointed out where the angel and the maiden had stood during the Annunciation.[1]

Figure 2: In this 1598 woodcut, two men hold onto a struggling woman being exorcised while, understandably, others flee the scene. From Pierre Boaistuau, et al., Histoires prodigieuses et memorables, extraictes de plusieurs fameux autheurs, Grecs, & Latins, sacrez & prophanes (Paris, 1598), vol. 1. Public domain.

It might seem odd that you could use a devil to prove a miracle, but as dramatic public spectacles, early modern exorcisms were crucial tools for affirming the correctness of Catholic beliefs and for converting heretics. A talented exorcist could overcome a demon’s lying nature to force it to reveal, for example, that Protestant martyrs were burning in hell. In Antonia’s exorcism, the demon confirmed not only that prayers to Christ’s mother could cure suffering people, but also that Loreto’s Holy House was a real relic of the ancient East, miraculously transported to European soil. Mary’s power was real. The story of the flying house was true.

But is truth always truth? Historians, of course, approach that question differently than do philosophers or psychologists. We can look at the Loreto story for what it tells us about the relationship between truth and power, particularly in times of disruption and change. As Protestants challenged the practice of pilgrimage to relics, Catholics felt it vitally important to affirm the Loreto miracle, perhaps because it was particularly easy to criticise. Early modern histories of the Loreto shrine gave their readers a wide range of proofs to supplement the demon’s testimony: eyewitness accounts of the flight preserved in the town archive, a holy hermit’s vision of Mary in the house, comparisons between the house and the original site, and more.

In 1507, Pope Julius II decreed that the Loreto House was the actual translated House of the Annunciation. But even after this seemingly definitive announcement, new histories of the shrine continued to collect and present proofs both miraculous and archaeological. And some Catholics still harboured doubts that such a wonderous thing could be true. The French pilgrim Greffin Affagart, visiting the original site in Nazareth, noted that the Loreto house was made of brick, a building material not used in the Levant. He worried that Loreto’s extraordinary claim would ‘provide opportunities for heretics and enemies of the Church to speak ill.’[2]

Fig. 3: One of the most-cited proofs was that the angels left the house’s foundations behind in Nazareth, as seen in this 1494 woodcut. The Translation of the Holy House of Loreto. Attribution: Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.

As the Jesuit order, in charge of Loreto from 1559, spread the cult world-wide (which is why there are places named Loreto from the Philippines to Brazil to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula), the Franciscans who administered Nazareth had to reconcile the official stance that the House of the Annunciation had relocated to Italy with their devotion to the original site. In 1620, before leaving to take up his post in the Levant, the Franciscan friar Tommasso Obicini visited Loreto and noted the dimensions of the Holy House. Settled in at Nazareth, he confessed that he could not dismiss his doubts about the translation from his mind. ‘It certainly seemed impossible to me,’ he wrote, ‘that a larger site could fit over a smaller site, and that a narrower could contain a broader.’ In short, the Holy House of Loreto was bigger than the foundations left behind.

But then, in restoring the ruined Basilica of the Annunciation, one of the Franciscan brothers broke up part of its paved floor. Examining the exposed ground, he discovered a different set of foundations long hidden from view. Obicini measured them and found that they accorded exactly with the dimensions of the Loreto house, ‘place to place, site to site, space to space.’[3] Obicini’s doubts melted away and he rejoiced that Divine Grace had led him to this physical proof of the miracle.

Because of his hesitation, Tomasso Obicini compared himself to the original Doubting Thomas, the disciple who had to touch the wounds on Christ’s body before he could believe in the Resurrection. Like Thomas, Tomasso was given physical proof for something that he should have been able to accept through faith alone. While faith that did not require physical evidence was preferable, the story of Doubting Thomas indicated that Christ recognized the human desire to find proofs that could be seen and touched.

Fig. 4: In Caravaggio’s glorious painting, Thomas gets uncomfortably intimate proof of the Resurrection. Caravaggio, Doubting Thomas, c. 1601-2. Attribution: public domain via Wikicommons.

The Loreto story and its various and continually reasserted proofs lets us glimpse how early modern Europeans determined that something was true. It reveals how anxieties about authenticity surfaced as power changed hands—as reformers sought to redefine doctrine, as religious orders competed, and as the loci of sacrality shifted. Further, it undermines the persistent idea that we can draw a clear divide between the credulous past and the rational present. Early modern people sought out proofs that made sense to them, and even the most devout believers sometimes had serious doubts. In fact, with their commitment to seeking out proof as they understood it, early modern people might have been more skilled than some of us at discerning authenticity. What might an early modern person say if told that truth wasn’t truth?

Further reading:

Caciola, Nancy. Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003.

Most, Glenn W. Doubting Thomas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Vélez, Karin. The Miraculous Flying House of Loreto: Spreading Catholicism in the Early Modern World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019.

Waller, Gary. A Cultural Study of Mary and the Annunciation: From Luke to the Enlightenment. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2015.

[1] Orazio Torsellino, The History of Our Blessed Lady of Loreto, trans. Thomas Price (Saint-Omer, Pas-de-Calais, France: English College of St. Omers, 1608), 147-9.

[2] Greffin Affagart, Relation de Terre Sainte (1533-1534), ed. J. Chavanon (Paris: Librairie Victor Lecoffre, 1902), 231-3, my translation.

[3] Sabino de Sandoli, ed., “Riedizione e Traduzione degli Opuscoli di Tommaso Obicini da Novara sulle Processioni nei Luoghi Santi e Sull’acquisto Dei Santuari di Nazaret e Ain Karem (1623),” Studia Orientalia Christiana Collectanea 22 (1989): 442, 444-6, my translation.

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