Holy House in Loreto founded with Apuleius’s Metamorphoses

In North Africa late in the second century, Christianity was rapidly gaining fearlessly faithful adherents. The North African orator-scholar Apuleius, schooled in traditional Roman culture and a devotee of the traditional Greco-Romans gods, seems to have been aware of the growing Christian cult. Apuleius nowhere in his surviving work directly refers to Christians. Such silence, however, was typical for elites deeply invested in traditional Roman culture:

Roman literary men notoriously refused to demean their pages by specific references to Christianity, towards which the governing class felt a social as well as an ideological revulsion; Apuleius would certainly not be alone in this respect. [1]

In Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, a highly derogatory depiction of a baker’s wife worshiping purportedly the “one and only” god and imbibing wine early in the morning almost surely implicitly refers disparagingly to Christians. Scholars have suggested other disparaging, indirect references to Christianity in Apuleius’s works.[2] Yet perhaps as result of classical scholars lack of appreciation for medieval literature, Apuleius’s intriguing story of a house being magically translated seems to have attracted no relevant analysis. That story has clear structural parallels to the medieval Christian story of angels translating the house of Jesus’s family from Nazareth to Loreto. Apuleius may well have been mocking a much earlier, but similar Christian account.

Apuleius’s reference to a house being translated occurs in the Metamorphoses within the account of Socrates’s marriage to the witch Meroe. Because of Meroe’s evil deeds, the people of her town decided to stone her. She in response with supernatural powers bound everyone within their homes. After two days of not being able to get out, the people solemnly swore that they would not harm Meroe and would help her against anyone who sought to do her harm. Meroe then released them. She, however, acted further against the man who had led the town assembly to the decision to stone her:

But the man who was responsible for that assembly she transported in the dead of night, together with his whole house, that is, with walls and the floor itself and the entire foundation, locked up as it was, away to the one hundredth milestone into another city, which was situated on the highest top of a rugged mountain and because of that without water. And since the close-built houses of its inhabitants did not offer enough space for their new guest, she threw down the house in front of the city gate and left.

{At vero coetus illius auctorem nocte intempesta cum tota domo, id est parietibus et ipso solo et omni fundamento, ut erat clausa, ad centesimum lapidem in aliam civitatem, summo vertice montis exasperati sitam et ob id ad aquas sterilem, transtulit. Et quoniam densa inhabitantium aedificia locum novo hospiti non dabant, ante portam proiecta domo discessit.} [3]

An extensive commentary on the first book of the Metamorphoses observes, “There is no parallel in ancient witchcraft for this particular feat.”[4]

Holy House being translated to Loreto

A medieval Christian story tells of angels transporting Jesus’s childhood house from Nazareth to Loreto. According to pious reports, in 1291, just before the expulsion of the crusaders from the Holy Land, angels transported the holy family’s house from Nazareth to a hill in Trsat, Croatia. When Turks took Albania in 1294, the house was potentially threatened. Angels then transported it across the Adriatic to a wooded area near Recanati, Italy. Bandits, however, were troubling the many pilgrims coming to the house. To improve public safety, angels in 1295 transported the house from there to a hill in Loreto. The Holy House become a prominent Christian pilgrimage site. The lavish Basilica della Santa Casa was erected about it late in the sixteenth century. It, and within it the Holy House from Nazareth, stand in Loreto to this day.[5]

The Metamorphoses’s transported house makes sense as an anti-Christian recasting of a Christian tradition like that concerning the Holy House in Loreto. Christians regarded as plausible the supernatural transport of a whole house across a long distance. Locating a city on a mountaintop lacking water makes little worldly sense. But in Christian understanding, a mountaintop is place to encounter God. A city on a hill signifies Christian civilization. Moreover, Christians transformed into sacramental material the mundane substances water, bread, wine, and oil.[6] In the Metamorphoses, a witch transporting a house to a spot outside a city gate on a mountaintop lacking water works as a thoroughly Apuleian travesty of a popular Christian story.

Sometime before Apuleius wrote the Metamorphoses in the mid-second century, Christians may have spoken of the Holy House of Nazareth, or some other hallowed house, being transported elsewhere. The North African city of Alexandria, with its early, vibrant Christian community, would have been a worthy destination. With inspiration, you can imagine that ancient tradition changed into new forms in the Metamorphoses and in the medieval story of the Holy House of Loreto.

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[1] Walsh (1968) pp. 152-3. Similarly, Hunink (2000) p. 92.

[2] On the baker’s wife:

That vile woman lacked not a single fault. Her soul was like some muddy latrine into which absolutely every vice had flowed. She was cruel and perverse, crazy for men and wine, headstrong and obstinate, grasping in her mean thefts and a spendthrift in her loathsome extravagances, an enemy of fidelity and a foe to chastity. Furthermore she scorned and spurned all the gods in heaven, and, instead of holding a definite faith, she used the false sacrilegious presumption of a god, whom she would call “one and only,” to invent meaningless rites to cheat everyone and deceive her wretched husband, having sold her body to drink from dawn and to debauchery the whole day. …  But an old woman who was a confidante of her debaucheries, and acted as a go-between in her affairs, was her inseparable companion all day every day. With her, first thing in the morning after breakfast and then some preliminary exchanges of strong wine, she would construct deceptive charades with cunning twists for the downfall of her poor, wretched husband.

{Nec enim vel unum vitium nequissimae illi feminae deerat, sed omnia prorsus ut in quandam caenosam latrinam in eius animum flagitia confluxerant: saeva scaeva, virosa ebriosa, pervicax pertinax, in rapinis turpibus avara, in sumptibus foedis profusa, inimica fidei, hostis pudicitiae. Tunc spretis atque calcatis divinis numinibus in vicem certae religionis mentita sacrilega praesumptione dei, quem praedicaret unicum, confictis observationibus vacuis fallens omnes homines et miserum maritum decipiens matutino mero et continuo stupro corpus manciparat. … Sed anus quaedam stuprorum sequestra et adulterorum internuntia de die cotidie inseparabilis aderat. Cum qua protinus ientaculo ac dehinc vino mero mutuis vicibus velitata, scaenas fraudulentas in exitium miserrimi mariti subdolis ambagibus construebat.}

From Metamorphoses 9.14-5, Latin and English trans. from Hanson (1989) vol. 2, pp. 123-7. For anti-Christian interpretation of the baker’s wife, Walsh (1968) p. 152; Tripp (1988) (rather over-interpreting); Smith (2012) pp. 48-5; Kyriakides (2015) pp. 5-7. Other possible anti-Christian allusions are discussed in the previously cited articles. For possible anti-Christian indications in Apuleius’s Florida and Apologia, Hunink (2000). For an interesting comparison of Lucius’s and Paul of Tarsus’s conversions, Smith (2009). Hunink declared:

Two points, I would suggest, now seem established beyond reasonable doubt: not only was Apuleius aware of the existence of Christianity, but he did not feel much sympathy for it either.

Hunink (2000) p. 80.

[3] Apuleius, Metamorphoses 1.10.5-6, Latin text and English translation from May (2013) pp. 74-5. For civitatem May translated “town,” as does Hanson (1989) p. 19. But “city” is also possible, particularly given close-built houses and the gate (ante portam). I’ve substituted “city” above. That helps to bring out the anti-Christian allusions that I perceive.

[4] May (2013) p. 144.

[5] By 1451, the Holy House at Loreta was “the most celebrated sanctuary {sacellum} in all Italy.” MacDonald (2013) pp. 111, 153, citing the fifteenth-century papal official Flavius Blondus.

How the Holy House came to be in Loreto is, of course, controversial. MacDonald (1913) and D’Anghiari (1967) argue for miraculous translation. Kerr (2012) and Hesemann (2016), Ch. 5, assert that the aristocratic Angelos family shipped the stones of the Holy House from Nazereth to Loreto. That position is based on a medieval document called the Chartularium culisanense. Nicolotti (2012) argues that the Chartularium culisanense is a forgery.

[6] For the mountaintop as a place to encounter God, see, e.g. Exodus 19, Matthew 17: 1-8, 28:16-18. For a city on a hill, Matthew 5:14. On Christian sacramental use of mundane materials, baptism with water (e.g. Luke 3:16, Acts 8:36-8, 1 Peter 3:20-1), communion using bread and wine (e.g. Matthew 26:26-9), consecrating persons and anointing the sick with oil (e.g. Exodus 30:22-33, James 5:13-4).

[image] The Translation of the Holy House of Loreto. Tempera and gold on wood. Attributed to Saturnino Gatti, c. 1510. Held in the Met Museum (New York), accession # 1973.319.


D’Anghiari, Angelo Maria, trans. by Cecilia Nachich. 1967. The authenticity of the Holy House: summary of the arguments. Loreto, Italy: Congregazion Universale della Santa Casa. (excerpt)

Hanson, John Arthur, ed. and trans. 1989. Apuleius. Metamorphoses {The Golden Ass}. Loeb Classical Library 44. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Hesemann, Michael. 2016. Mary of Nazareth: history, archaeology, legends. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

Hunink, Vincent. 2000. “Apuleius, Pudentilla, and Christianity.” Vigiliae Christianae. 54 (1): 80-94.

Kerr, David. 2012. “Pope entrusts Year of Faith, evangelization synod to Mary.” Catholic News Agency (CNA) News Report, Loreto, Italy, Oct. 4.

Kyriakides, Theophilos. 2015. “Anti-Christian Allusions in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses.” Paper uploaded to academia.edu.

May, Regine, ed. and trans. 2013. Apuleius’ Metamorphoses or the Golden Ass: Book 1. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

MacDonald, Alexander. 1913. The Holy House of Loreto: a study of documents and traditions. New York: Christian Press Association.

Nicolotti, Andrea. 2012. “Su alcune testimonianze del Chartularium Culisanense, sulle false origini dell’Ordine Costantiniano Angelico di Santa Sofia e su taluni suoi documenti conservati presso l’Archivio di Stato di Napoli.” Giornale Di Storia 8: 1-18.

Smith, Warren S. 2009. “Apuleius and The New Testament: Lucius’ Conversion Experience.” Ancient Narrative. 7: 51-73.

Smith, Warren S. 2012. “Apuleius’ Metamorphoses and Jewish/Christian Literature.” Ancient Narrative. 10: 47-87.

Tripp, David. 1988. “The baker’s wife and her confidante in Apuleius, Met. IX 14 ff.: some liturgiological considerations.” Emerita. 56 (2): 245-254.

Walsh, P. G. 1968. “Lucius Madaurensis.” Phoenix. 22 (2): 143-157.

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