Epic Relics, "Vera Effigies," Wonder Working Madonnas, and Gruesome Crucifixions: A Virtual Visit to Prague's Fabulous Loreto Shrine

Text and images (unless specified) by Joanna Ebenstein, founder and creative director of Morbid Anatomy

When recently in Prague, I visited, thanks to my good friend Eleanor Crook, The Loreto Shrine. This 17th century baroque pilgrimage site is named for a wonder-working statue of Our Lady of Loreto. It is not an original, but a sacred copy, what is a called a 'vera effigy'--a true copy or likeness--of the famed black madonna of Loreto.

You can see her, in situ, above, and in this postcard:

As well as in these prayer cards:

The original version of this miraculous statue, seen in this etching:

The Virgin of Loreto, etching, 1781; The Wellcome Collection

was, until destroyed by fire in 1921, the centerpiece of the most important Marian shine, the Santa Casa, or Holy House, in Loreto, Italy. This is said to be the very house where The Virgin Mary was born and lived much of her life. Devotees believe it was carried by angels from its original home in Nazareth to Italy, by way of Croatia, centuries ago.

Mary's home being moved by angels, from Wilhelm Gumppenberg's Atlas Marianus, a 17th century book devoted to miracle-working images of Mary 

This house was also where the much depicted annunciation is believed to have taken place, in which the archangel Gabriel informed Mary she would conceive and give birth to the holy child. 

The Annunciation: Four Panels from the San Lazaro Altarpiece, Juan de Flandes, circa 1508/1519, The National Gallery of Art

The Virgin Mary is believed at her death to have been taken--or in church language,, assumed or translated--soul and body into heaven.

The Assumption of the Virgin Mary, from a French Book of Hours. Bibliotheque Renaissance de Nancy, MS 1874

Because Mary left no body behind to be preserved and enshrined, the Santa Casa is one of the very few existing Marian relics (most of the others are clothing related). Thus the importance of Santa Casa, and the reason it was widely reproduced in Bohemia and beyond.

But what about this counterintuitive, perplexing idea of the  'vera effigy,' or 'true copy?' 

The Prague Loreto: A Guide for the Pilgrimage Site explains that this "true likeness" is 

... concerned [with] the inner authenticity of a devotional copy of a venerated relic, of a wonder-working depiction--a certain characteristic manner of representing Christ, the Virgin Mary or the saints--or even of architecture.) Through this authenticity, the copy assumes the 'sacrum'--grace and sacredness--of the original, along with its outward form."

This vera effigy, then, is a sort of church approved, sacred simulacrum, understood to have the same holy charge, and the same ability to produce miracles as the original.

Speaking to the miraculous abilites of Prague's vera effigy is the rich collection of ex votos and precious gifts left behind by the many pilgrims who visited the shrine over the centuries, some of which are on view in the shrine's museum:

Its popularity as a pilgrimage site is also attested to by the impressive and ornate devotional items and relics it houses, also on display in the museum.

It is said that there are more wonder working paintings and sculptures of Mary than any other Christian figure, including Christ himself. As explained by Father René Laurentin in his  book Pilgrimages, Sanctuaries, Icons and Apparitions:

Icons often represent Mary. In this she surpasses all the other saints. This is understandable, for she made God visible to our eyes, in her image and in her likeness. She is therefore at the center of the mystery and also of Christian iconography. It is because of her mission to render God incarnate that the commandments of the Decalogue: “You shall not make a graven images (Ex:20:4) gives place to the need for icons and leads to the condemnation of iconoclasm, according to the principle enunciated by Theodorus the Studite: ‘If art could not represent Christ, it would mean that the word did not become incarnate" (3rd refutation pg. 99, 417C).

Mary has long been popular with the people, understood to have direct access to her son, and the power to intercede with him on one's behalf. Her qualities of mercy and compassion, paired with her powers of persuasion, make her a strong ally. She also has has a strong penchant for personal visitations, often appearing to children, the downtrodden or the vilified (more in this recent post). 

In Miracles of Mary: Apparitions, Legends and Miraculous Works of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Michael S. Durham explains that the first known Marian vision took place in 40 AD, when she appeared to St James. Since then, there have been over 20,000 (!!!) reported visitations, many of which have kindled fierce popular devotion, but few of which have been officially sanctioned by church. Some sites of her appearances, such as Lourdes or Fátima, continue to draw millions of pilgrims today.

On of my favorite parts of Prague's Loreto shrine is its ode to Marian popular devotion, the "Marian Atlas," a series of 36 lunette paintings depicting miracle working paintings or sculptures of the Virgin Mary. These charming, homespun images decorate the shrine's courtyards, and, as the guide book explains, " illustrate legendary contexts, most often the discovery of a statue or painting, its miraculous relocation, or the healing of sick petitioners."

Following are a few of my favorites; together, they show the rich variety of Marian iconography in her various manifestations, almost like different goddesses rather than a single saint. Truly a Mary for every mood and need!

Other wonders of the shrine include this wonderful crucifixion hovering above a painting of souls in purgatory:

And this macabre, decoratively bloodied figure of a crucified Christ:

As well as a fabulous, if small, exhibition of paintings and sculptures.

The staggeringly ornate chapel of the shrine also houses these cheeky putti delighting at the severed breasts of St Agatha on a plate:

Or examining the forcibly extracted teeth of Saint Apollonia.

The same chapel holds this incredible cuerpo santo, or life size effigy reliquary, of Saint Felicissimus; the wax head contains the skull of the saint, and it is topped with real human hair:

The shrine is also famous for a crypt decorated with memento mori-themed frescos dating to 1664. 

Image: Wikipedia Commons

Sadly the crypt is no longer open (due to conservation issues), but they have created a small replica that can be visited today.

If you ever find yourself in Prague, I highly recommend a visit to this shrine. You can find a book about shine, and the memento mori themed crypt, in two guidebooks we make available the Morbid Anatomy Library. For more on the holdings of this shrine, see this recent Patreon post about their collection related to St Wilgefortis, the bearded lady saint.


Joanna Ebenstein is a Brooklyn-based writer, curator, photographer and graphic designer. She is the creator of the Morbid Anatomy blog, library and event series, and was cofounder and creative director of the recently shuttered Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn. Her books include Death: A Graveside Companion, The Anatomical Venus and The Morbid Anatomy Anthology (with Colin Dickey). Her work explores the intersections of art and medicine, death and culture, and the objective and subjective.

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