'I first saw it in an exhibition at the Royal Academy; it was a private view at midnight and you honestly felt she was going to jump out at you. '

The Madonna of Loreto by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610), 8ft 61⁄2in by 5ft, Church of Sant’Agostino, Rome. Bridgeman Images.

Fiona Shaw says:
This painting hangs above a tiny altar on the left of the entrance to Sant’Agostino, so I dip in and out of the church whenever I’m in Rome. I first saw it in an exhibition at the Royal Academy; it was a private view at midnight and you honestly felt she was going to jump out at you. With her lovely big baby, she could be any woman and Caravaggio’s painting is so sensual, such an immense celebration of her beauty that he must surely have loved her. But, supposedly, he later found she was engaged to another man who, when he saw the painting, picked a fight with the artist and was killed by him. After that, Caravaggio was on the run and never able to work properly again. It’s very rare that a painting holds a death warrant in this way. In a sense, it contains Caravaggio’s own future.

John McEwen comments:
At Loreto, in 2012, Benedict XVI said: ‘Mary, who is the Mother of Christ, is also our mother, and she opens to us the door to her home, she helps us enter into the will of her Son.’

Caravaggio’s Madonna of Loreto proclaimed the same message 400 years ago. His envious rival, the journeyman painter Giovanni Baglione (1563–1643), who sued him for libel, was also author of the first biography. He wrote: ‘Caravaggio painted a Madonna di Loreto portrayed from the life, with two pilgrims, one of them with muddy feet, and the other wearing a torn and soiled bonnet; and because of these frivolities in the details… the populace loved them.’

The picture shows two pilgrims before the shrine of the Virgin at Loreto, the most popular site of Marian pilgrimage until Lourdes. The object of their veneration is the Blessed Virgin’s house in Nazareth, turned into a chapel by Empress Helena in the 4th century. To save it from the Mohammedan infidel, it was miraculously airborne ‘by angels’ in 1294, via Croatia to Loreto on the Adriatic coast north-east of Rome. At Loreto, it was installed in a basilica and encased in a majestic marble screen designed by Bramante.

Caravaggio brings the Madonna and Child to life for the faithful pilgrims. Showing Mary and Jesus as one of us did not conform with Cardinal Paleotti’s contemporary rulebook Discourse on sacred and profane images, hence Baglione’s trouble-stirring description.

In 1920, Benedict XV made Our Lady of Loreto patron saint of air travellers and pilots.

This article was originally published in Country Life, July 8, 2015.