Back in the 1850s (when I’d like to think things were different, but perhaps they weren’t) Augustus Hare visited Loreto, a fortress-like church above Santa Casa.
“We were called at five to go to the church. It was still pitch dark but many pilgrims had arrived and waited with us in a corridor till the doors were opened. The scene inside was most singular – the huge expanse quite dark, except where a blaze of light under the dome illuminated the marble casing of the Santa Casa, or where a solitary lamp permitted a picture or image to loom out of the chaos. The great mass of pilgrims knelt together before the shrine, but here and there a desolate figure, with arms outstretched in agonising prayer, threw a long weird shadow down the pavement of the nave, while others were crawling on hands and knees round the side walls of the house, occasionally licking up the sacred dust with their tongues, which left a bloody trail upon the floor.
“At either door of the House the lamplight flashed upon the drawn sword of a soldier, keeping guard to prevent too many people pressing together as they ceaselessly passed in single file upon their knees to gaze for a few seconds upon the rugged walls of unplastered brick, blackened with soot, which they believed to be the veritable walls of the cottage at Nazareth. Here, in strange contrast, the negress statue attributed to saint Luke gleams in a mass of diamonds. At the west end of the House was the window by which the angel entered!
“The collection of jewels and robes in the sacristy was enormous, though the priests lamented bitterly to us over the ravages of the Revolution, and that now the Virgin had only wardrobe sufficient to allow of her changing her dress once instead of three times every day of the year.”
Hare passed on without further comment. I’ll try to do the same.