The facade

The façade of the shrine is characterised by two mighty buttresses between which are the two svelte Gothic windows. At the top, three pinnacles punctuate the roof. The two exteriors are characterised by two crowning bells, formerly operated by the clock below. In the middle of the buttresses, in fact, two dials appear: on the right the hour one and on the left the zodiacal one, once protected by an eaves. Further down, the elegant portico in front of the entrance runs as a wide loggia with thirteen round arches supported by fourteen pink marble columns.

Traces of further arches are clearly visible incorporated in the two bodies of the building, which develop from the ends of the arcade itself and move towards the square following its outer edges. It is interesting to note that the capitals corresponding to the central triforium are clearly Gothic, thus marking a sort of original pronaos (or at any rate an ancient one, no later than, obviously, the mid-15th century) that was later extended in the 16th century up to the edge of the façade and then towards the centre of the square.

Interesting are the lunettes, painted in 1643 by Bernardino and Bernardo Muttoni, painters active for the Franciscan Order in the Venetian Province and authors of similar decorations in Peschiera, Verona, Este, Padua and other convents (the decoration of the cloister of Grazie, with stories of St. Francis, is also due to them). The two artists here depicted, in the eastern arm, the history of the sanctuary, and in the western arm some of the miracles performed by the Virgin.

Moving to the east end of the portico and proceeding westwards, the following lunettes can be read:

  • Veneration of the sacred image placed in the shrine by the lake.
  • Bishop Sagramoso Gonzaga and the Lord of Mantua, Francesco I Gonzaga, fourth captain of the people, entrust the miraculous image to the Franciscans.
  • Francesco I Gonzaga vowed to the Virgin to rebuild the shrine if the plague ceased. Note that in the left half of the lunette the Lord of Mantua prays in front of the Mater Gratiae table, while the right half shows Piazza Sordello dotted with corpses and characterised by the ancient Gothic façade of the city cathedral.
  • The building of the Sanctuary. Francesco I Gonzaga shows the model of the church, already under construction, to the bishop of Cremona, Niccolò Tinti.
  • The consecration of the Sanctuary, which took place on 15 August 1406, when the convent was still under construction; the Patriarch of Grado, the Bishop of Mantua Antonio degli Uberti, the Bishop of Cremona Nicolò Tinti and Francesco I Gonzaga with his court are present at the rite.
  • The miracle of the rescued soldier: in battle, through Mary's intervention a soldier escaped, even though he was struck in the chest by a 'fiery globe'. The reference is probably to one of the statues inside the shrine, showing a soldier with an exposed heart.
  • Our Lady saves the sailors of a caravel in the storm.
  • The Madonna and Child between cherubs (image repainted but dating back to the late 15th century and with a Mantegna flavour).
  • The veneration of the Icon. The second visit to the sanctuary by Emperor Charles V and that of Margaret of Austria, Queen of Spain.
  • Decoration lost or never realised.
  • The saved from the flooding of the Danube.
  • The saved from the flood of the Danube.
  • The rescued from the assault of brigands.
  • The saved from shipwreck.
  • Maria Mater Gratiae: the Virgin protects from physical (represented by the crutches) and spiritual (the fleeing devils) evils.
  • Fragment of fresco depicting St. Anthony.

It must be said that the story of the foundation of the sanctuary recounted here is an ex post reconstruction, but that it does not match history: the sanctuary was already present around the year 1000, albeit with a different architecture, and the shrine by the lake, if it existed at all, certainly did not house the precious icon of the Mater Gratiae. On the other hand, the shrewd observer will notice how all the figures appear dressed in clothing from the first half of the 17th century and certainly not from the late 14th or early 15th century.

The cruel plague spreads throughout the people

and affects countless people miserably;

neither the shade of the woods gives relief,

nor the crops, nor the tender meadows:

all are prostrate, stupefied are the minds,

tears flow in vain

and prayers do not change the divine will.

Then Francesco Gonzaga prays to this holy woman

and with the vow to erect the temple, the deadly disease ceases.

French, Venetians, Germans and Spaniards flock here,

to all here is given health and divine life;

here come you Mantuans with fervent prayers:

the Alma Madre supplicant corroborates them.

To the right of the entrance, a plaque bears some cannonballs from the Battle of Pavia that took place in 1522, as can be seen from the inscription. On that occasion, Marquis Federico II Gonzaga saved the city from the French siege.

A little further on is the plaque commemorating the Battle of Curtatone, fought in the village that gives its name to the municipality, just a few kilometres away, in 1848. The beautiful Renaissance marble portal was commissioned by the noble Delfini family, whose emblem appears finely sculpted in the capitals. The architrave bears the inscription 'SACRVM CELESTI REGINE DICATUM', or 'Dedicated to the Queen of Heaven', above which is a painted lunette depicting a Madonna and Child between cherubs.

The fresco is worthy of special attention: over-painted (and certainly pre-existing the cycle that runs along the façade), it reveals traits of high pictorial quality that place at least the design in the Mantegna sphere. Beyond the art, the placement of a scene at the very entrance, in which Mary seems to want to place her divine Son in the foreground, takes on a precise meaning for those who enter: even if the temple is dedicated to her, as the inscription below states, the believer must not forget that every church is dedicated first and foremost to God and no one, not even the Madonna, can prescind from Him.

For further information click here: Sanctuary bibliography and insights

Santuario delle Grazie
Pick a flower for the Blessed Virgin Mary of Grace