Loreto owes its existence to one of the Catholic Church’s more surreal legends. The story goes that in 1292, when the Muslims kicked the Crusaders out of Palestine, a posse of angels flew the house of Mary from Nazareth, the Santa Casa, to Dalmatia, and then, a few years later, whisked it across the Adriatic to Loreto. In the face of growing scepticism, the Vatican came up with the more plausible story that the Holy House was transported to Loreto on board a Crusader ship. Not surprisingly, though, this new theory doesn’t have the same hold on the Catholic imagination, and the Madonna of Loreto continues to be viewed as the patron saint of aviators: Lindbergh took an image of her on his landmark Atlantic flight in 1927, and a medallion inscribed with her image also accompanied the crew of Apollo 9. For centuries she was also credited with military victories – presumably she was thought to have power over projectiles.

During the Baroque period the Santa Casa was copied by pious architects across central Europe, most notably in Bohemia and Moravia where tens of replicas were built. The finest of these stands next to Prague Castle.

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