The name Loretto has origins in the Italian pilgrim place where the Santa Casa – Holy House is located, originally a cottage inhabited by Virgin Mary in Nazareth in Palestine, where supposedly Archangel Gabriel announced to her that she would become mother of God. From here, she and St. Joseph went to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, and later she came back again. The Holy House has, shortly after Virgin Mary’s death, become a worshipped relic, which was however badly damaged after the invasion of the Saracens (Arabian Muslims) into Palestine. Legend says that when the crusading army left Palestine in 1291, a miracle happened. Angels took the Holy Cabin first to Dalmatia and from here into the town in Northern Italy, into a laurel grove, after which the town is called Loreto, which is Laurentum in Latin (laurus – laurel). Archaeological research later confirmed that a part of the brickwork really is identical with Mary’s cabin, but it was probably the pope who had it brought from Nazareth in the 13th century. Based on the Italian model from architect Donato Bramante, Loreto was also built in other Catholic countries; in our country it was namely after the defeat at Bílá Hora in 1620. The Holy Cabin in Mikulov, built by Cardinal Diettrichstein, became a model for Prague’s Loreto, as Countess Kateřina Benigna of Lobkowicz admired it during her visit. She donated Lobkovicz land plots for the construction of Prague’s Loreto, she entrusted the administration of the future sanctuary to the Capuchins, and she called the builder Giovanni Battista Orsi from Vienna. When he died, Andrea Allio continued with the work. The construction started in 1626, the sanctuary was canonized by Cardinal Harrach in 1631, and the construction continued for many years after that.
The Holy House, under which there is the Lobkowicz family crypt established by countess Lobkowicz, is located in the middle of the courtyard surrounded by six chapels. The cabin is decorated by marble reliefs of Giovanni Bartolommeo Cometa, who imitated the originals of Sansovino. One of the reliefs reminds the legend on transferring the house. Inside, there is a 110 cm high Virgin Mary of Loreto in a silver niche, with baby Jesus, from the 1620s, carved out from lime wood. The statue has a black skin color to resemble the Italian original made of cedar wood. This Italian medieval statue turned black over time, which was partly due to the former means of lighting with candles. There is an artificially created crack based on the cabin in Italian Loreto, where the stroke of lightning was supposed to awake the villagers to protect the cabin when a thief got in.
Latin inscription above the bars in the Loreto Holy Cabin:
EN. LOBKOVIZIANOS. TV. PIA. VIRGO. REGE.
There are several possible translation versions:
Gracious virgin, do control the Lobkowicz family!
Now you, pious Virgin, guide the Lobkowicz!
Now you, pure Virgin, control the Lobkowicz!
Now you, holy Virgin, rule over the Lobkowicz
Orsi began with the construction of the cloisters and the frontispiece building after 1634; the treasury was built around 1683. Between the years 1710 and 1717, the alcove chapels in the cloister were modified by Kryštof Dientzenhofer, as well as the frontispiece building, which was completed by his son Kilián Ignác. The latter also built the 2nd floor of the cloisters in 1747 – 50. The frontispiece was completed in 1724 by settling the alliance emblem of the donors Filip Lobkowicz and his wife Eleonora Karolína made by Jan Bedřich Kohl. He is also the author of some of the statues deposited here (St. Felix, František, Antonín, John of Nepomuk).
Out of the cloister chapels, the best known is the Chapel of Virgin Mary of Sorrows, where there is the oldest sculptural group from the entire premises – Gothic Pieta from the first half of the 15th century. On the side alter, there is crucified St. Wilgefortis (Sv. Starosta) with a beard, of whom the legend says that she had impetrated the beard in order to displease the pagan her father selected as her husband. Her father crucified her for this. There are fresco decorations from Felix Anton Scheffler. In 1750, he also painted forty seven symbolic pictures on the subject of the Loreto litany, and frescos in the dome of the St. Anna and Holy Cross. There are oval gold and white altars by Matěj Václav Jäckl in the chapel of St. Francis Seraphim and St. Anthony of Padua. In the first alter, there is a high-Baroque painting Stigmatisation of St. Francis by Petr Brandl. Both the mentioned chapels were re-built by Kryštof Dientzenhofer.
On both sides of the Holy Cabin, there are sculptural groups of Virgin Mary’s Assumption and Christ’s Resurrection in the fountains in the courtyard, the author being Michal Jan Brüderle, a sculptor. When he died, his work was completed by Richard Prachner.
Extending the middle chapel in the Eastern cloister gave rise to the Church of the Nativity of Lord, the altar of which bears the painting of the same name, donated by countess Marie Markéta of Valdštejn, born Černínová of Chudenice. She also initiated and funded the extension of the chapel and the construction of the church later on, managed by Jan Jiří Aichbauer in 1734 – 37. The church is a typically Baroque building with marked Rococo interior. Sculptural decorations are the work of Matthias Schönherr (the main altar, the pulpit, the oratory, four statues on the church’s sides, and two side altars) and Michal Jan Brüderle (four couples of angels on side altars). On the church’s vault, there are frescoes named Nativity of Lord and Adoration of the Three Kings by Jan Adam Schoepfel, and namely a fresco by Václav Vavřinec Rainer named Presentation of Christ from 1738. The painting of St. Agnes and Apollonia was realized for the church by Antonín Kern.
The terrace in front of Loreto’s frontispiece is framed by a balustrade with sandstone sculptures of angels by Andreas Philip Quittainer (mostly copies). The frontispiece is dominated by the tower erected in 1693 in which the famous carillon. The clock machine that drives the carillon was designed by a watchmaker Petr Neumann in 1694; the bells were cast by an Amsterdam bell founder Claude Fremy. The carillon was funded and later donated to Loreto by a Malá Strana businessman Eberhard of Glauchov. The bells are immovable, ringed by two independent mechanisms. Twenty seven out of the thirty bells sound within the scale of two and one quarter of the octave (the three smallest bells have no mechanics leading to them). The carillon first sounded on the 15th August 1695. There are two systems: one is controlled by the clock mechanism, and on each hour it automatically plays a Marian song Thousands of greetings to you; the second system is operated by a musician, who can play different songs, but only limited by a reduced scale of octaves. The bells were restored in the 1990s by the workshop of master Manoušek of Zbraslav.
In January 2002, the Cardinal and Prague Archbishop Miloslav Vlk pronounced this church to be a pilgrimage Church, the Church of the Nativity of Christ with a loretan chapel in a Capuchin province.
The Legend on the Carillon origin
A poor widow used to live at Nový Svět (New World) and had as many children as there were bells in Loreto. She would hide a silver coin for each of them, the gifts of their godmother, which they were to get when the grow up. Unfortunately, the family was attacked by plague, and the children were dying, one by one. The mother would always take one coin to arrange for a funeral, and there was some money left for the passing bell ringing with one of the Loreto bells. When she buried her last child in this way, she fell ill herself. She only heaved that there was nobody to take care after her last pilgrimage, and at that moment, all the bells sounded with a beautiful melody. The widow listened to the sounds which reminded her of her children’s voices, and died with peace on her face.
Kateřina of Lobkowicz made a donation to Loreto, which formed a base of the Loreto Treasure. Especially for the protection of an exceptionally valuable work – the Diamond monstrance – a treasury was built in 1702 on the ground floor of the front wing, which was modified by architect Josef Mocker in 1882. In 1962, a new treasury was open on the first floor, made after a project of architect Karel Vacek. The objects of the Loreto Treasure deposited in the Treasury most often date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. They are mostly monstrances, chalices, little altars, miniatures and other votive donations. The oldest object is a Gothic chalice from 1510, a donation of Kryštof Ferdinand Popel of Lobkowicz. The most famous object is the diamond monstrance named Prague Sun. Countess Ludmila of Kolowrat bequeath six and a half thousand of diamonds for its production. The monstrance was made by Vienna goldsmiths based on a design of Jan Bernard Fischer of Ehrlach in 1696-99. It is made of gold-plated silver, decorated by 6222 diamonds, the rest of the diamonds was used as payment for the work. The monstrance weighs more than 12 kg. The monstrance’s crown is composed as a son. Above the Earth with clouds, on a half-moon with a human face, there is Virgin Mary Immaculata with twelve stars around her head. Within the sun’s crown, there is the Holy Spirit in the resemblance of a white enamelled dove. The second most valuable piece of the treasure is represented by the Ring Monstrance, decorated by jewellery endowed to Virgin Mary of Loreto (nearly 500 diamonds, two hundred rubys, emeralds, pearls, etc.) and thirteen octagonal cameos with portraits of Habsburg rulers. Among other treasures, there is, for example, the Great Pearl Monstrance decorated by pendants of pearls and diamonds, the Small Pearl Monstrance with white enamelled blossoms and beautiful pearls, and there are other valuable objects. Since 2014, another part of the collection has been newly exhibited, the so-called “The Hidden Face of the Loreto Treasure” – works that were until then hidden in depositories and after restoration are now also presented to the public.