What would you do if in the course of restructuring an old ruin you discovered a fresco of the Virgin Mary? In 1798 the Raffaeli family bought up the remains of an ancient oratory (dating back to 1100) with the intention of converting it into an orangery (or “limonaia” as one would say in Italian). As the builders were stripping one wall they found behind the plaster an image of the Madonna showing her as she was praying at the moment of the Annunciation by the Holy Spirit in the company of a star and a dove. This discovery was regarded as a miraculous occurrence – the Raffaeli gave up their plans for the orangery and instead rebuilt the old oratory.
For many years the church was the centre of devoted pilgrimages and survived enemy fire when it was on the front (gothic) line during the winter of 1944-5. But, in recent times, it fell into some neglect and abandon, mainly due to lack of staff. Fortunately, last year an arrangement was reached whereby the sanctuary would be cared again and opened to pilgrims once more by a committee headed by the ODM (Order of the servants of Mary)
May is the Virgin Mary’s month and our choir was invited to participate in the host of events at the sanctuary, which is near Fosciandora. Other local choirs were invited to sing for Sunday Masses (of which there are three during this period). The church was packed and we had to narrowly squeeze into a corner to sing – all twenty-five of us. But we managed well, found our music (and sang) in time. Indeed, (I thought oddly for a church service) our singing was applauded by the happy congregation at the Ite Missa Est.
The afternoon was truly sunny for a change, with a categorically blue sky and scattered breezy clouds. So the outside rinfresco the pilgrims had laid on for us was most enjoyable with the most delicious cakes I have ever eaten – surely the best of Italian baking can really only be appreciated from the home oven.
Saint Bernard said “look at the Star and call on the name of Mary” and, indeed, the sanctuary is known as “la Maria Santissima Della Stella”. I am so glad to have been able to help in the reawakening of this beautiful shrine by singing in our choir.
The fresco of the Madonna is truly moving in its naivety and the sanctuary’s situation is glorious. But for me the real glory of the building is its pair of entrance doors, so skilfully carved in pear wood by a certain Carli in 1930. The panels represent important religious icons of particular Luccan relevance (for example il Volto Santo of Lucca) each one in its own separately designed frame. What a marvellous piece of work and what patience and time they must have taken to produce!