Chosen by: Mary Laven
According to legend, in the late thirteenth century, angels carried the Virgin Mary’s home all the way from Nazareth to Loreto in Central Italy. I first visited the shrine, which is built around the ‘holy house’, on a hot August day eight years ago. Like visitors before me, I was struck by its stunning hilltop position, the wonderful Renaissance architecture and the determination of the pilgrims, many of whom were in wheelchairs and suffering from acute illness or long-term disability.
On that occasion, I managed to resist buying any souvenirs from the stalls that lined the streets. However, upon returning to Cambridge, I was delighted to discover a charming eighteenth-century pilgrim bowl from Loreto in the Fitzwilliam’s collection. To those in the know, the Madonna of Loreto is immediately recognisable: she wears a distinctive bell-shaped dress and carries the Christ Child on her back. The building behind her is of course her own transported house. With its simple shape and cheerful colours, I always think it would make a nice a cereal bowl (although in reality it’s far too small for my breakfast). My favourite bit is the inscription: ‘CON POL. DI S. CASA’ – ‘made with the dust of the holy house’. That sacred dust had travelled from the Holy Land to the heart of Catholic Europe and would yet find its way into the homes of the faithful.