Viterbo. Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Quercia

The sanctuary of Santa Maria della Quercia(Oak Tree) is located in the town of Viterbo called La Quercia where two miracles occurred, from which one of the most well-loved cults in Italy began, that of the Madonna della Quercia.

It all starts thanks to miracles from which the whole cult originates.

In 1417 the blacksmith Battista Juzzante asked the painter Martello, called Monetto, to paint a Madonna on a tile to put on a branch of an oak to protect his land.

It is said that more than a few people in the village had tried to steal the tile, but the Madonna would always return to the branches of the tree that had bent in such a way as to protect it from the elements.

In 1467 the first miracle took place: a knight chased by rival gangs took refuge under the branches of the oak and suddenly became invisible to his enemies.

The second miracle, still the same year, is that of having stopped the plague after about 30,000 people had gathered to pray around the tree.

At the end of the plague a great pilgrimage immediately began and Pope Paul II decided at that point to build a church that was entrusted to the Dominican fathers who chose it as their protector.

Thanks to the great arrival of offers, after two years the church was completely built with a project designed by the great architect Giuliano da Sangallo.

Another episode that contributed to the growth of religious interest around the Madonna della Quercia was the proclamation of Pope Pius V who had elected her protector of the Christian army at the battle of Lepanto in 1571.

The battle fought near a Greek island was decisive for blocking the Turkish and Muslim advance in the West. Upon returning from the battle, the commander of the Christian fleet John of Austria placed a small box with two Turkish flags at the foot of the Madonnna.

While the history began in Viterbo, its national importance over the centuries is due to the Dominican friars, who have guarded her for those centuries and elected her as their patron, and to the Brotherhood of Butchers whose members were Maremma meat merchants.

These merchants used to go to Rome to sell their meat and decided to transfer their headquarters to a small church in the centre of Rome, transforming that of Nicola de Curte in Campo dei Fiori dedicating it to the cult of the Madonna della Quercia.

Over time the Macellari (Brotherhood of Butchers) decided to rebuild the church and thanks to the Dominican Pope Benedict XIII began the work in 1727.

Another miraculous event then occurred during the Second World War when all the bombs that fell on Viterbo and the surrounding areas left the sanctuary intact.

In 1873 the sanctuary, already elected as a basilica, was declared a National Monument by the Italian State.

The church presents notable differences in style between the sober Renaissance exterior and the richly Baroque interior.

The façade from the early 16th century is finished with ashlar facing and has simple forms with three entrance doors, a central rose window and a closing tympanum with a bas-relief depicting the oak and the lions (representing Viterbo).

On the three doors there are three ceramic lunettes made by the great Andrea della Robbia, obviously the central one shows the Madonna della Quercia and the side ones San Tommaso d'Aquino (St Thomas Aquinas) and San Pietro (St Peter).

On the right side of the church stands a rather low bell tower with three levels of openings made by Ambrogio da Milano, with two original bells of 1578 and 1655.

While on the other side of the facade you can see a small balcony from which the Pope sent the blessing to the faithful, dating back to 1483 by the artist Vincenzo da Viterbo.

The church has three naves divided by columns with round arches and a precious gilded coffered ceiling designed by Antonio da Sangallo.

But all the attention is captured by the central marble aedicule (shrine) made by Andrea Bregno in 1490 and which guards the tile with the image of the Madonna.

A magnificent inlaid choir from 1514 and a precious organ from 1613 complete the image of the church.

The adjoining convent is also an architectural masterpiece with its two cloisters from the 15th and 16th centuries and a refectory designed by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger.

Written by:
Benedicta Lee

Born in Rome from an Italian mother and American father, she works as a freelance communications manager and designer in the tourism sector, a career and interest which she is pursuing with a...


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