The Nave

The spectacle offered to the visitor inside the Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin of Graces is unusual and astonishing, and the attempts of historians in the past to find a first model for the decoration were to little avail.

Once through the entrance threshold, the interior space of the minor basilica opens up: a single hall, lit by svelte single-lancet windows, culminating in a polygonal apse and enriched by numerous chapels on each side. The appearance is curious and the result of numerous superimpositions. The main structure is, in fact, Lombard Gothic in character, but the embellishment is often Renaissance (as in the apse or in some chapels) or late Baroque (the pre-Baroque character of the Viennese stuccoes decorating the vault of the Passionists' chapel would be a good indication).

The hall is 45 metres long and 15 metres wide, and has a cross-vaulted roof (the corbels are eight metres from the floor level), divided by two arches into three distinct, square bays. The roof was most likely built some 20 years after the construction of the Sanctuary, since the central keystone bears the Bernardine trigram. St Bernardine of Siena was a guest of the religious complex in 1420. He was active in preaching and is also remembered for a number of miracles, ranging from prodigious healings to the navigation of the lake above his cloak.

The other two keystones depict the Madonna and Child and the Moon. The symbolism of these elements is extensive: the Bernardine Sun is placed in the centre of the nave and relates to the Moon and the Marian group. The reference could be to the Apocalypse (12.1.4; 20.1-2), in which we read: "A great sign appeared in the sky: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet (...) A dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, to devour the newborn child (...) An angel came down from heaven with a great chain in his hand; he seized the dragon, the ancient serpent, that is, the devil, Satan, and chained him".

The decoration of the vaults, with floral whorls, is undoubtedly ancient, and has been read symbolically (heraldic symbols of the Gonzaga family, esoteric and alchemic allusions, floral ornamentation in honour of the Virgin), but in the 19th century it was repainted, and between the volutes of the first bay one can make out the initials of the artists.

Valuable Murano glass chandeliers hang from the vaults and a stuffed crocodile hangs from the old bay. The walls are covered by a wooden scaffold containing about sixty polymaterial statues depicting illustrious visitors and those miraculously blessed by the Virgin, and covered with very fine wax votive offerings. This is the only surviving example in the world of this ancient custom, also known, for example, at the Annunziata in Florence or in Viterbo, where, however, nothing remains of these sculptures.

Upon entering the temple, visitors are attracted by the large crocodile hanging in the first bay of the church. This is a Nilotic crocodile stuffed at the beginning of the 15th century and probably placed in the Sanctuary on the occasion of its reopening after the reconstruction ordered by Francesco I Gonzaga. It is a medieval symbol, linked to the apotropaic aspect, the presence of the devil in earthly reality and the intervention of the Virgin Mary. Its meaning is to banish all other monsters from the sacred space: those who enter the church to ask for a physical, mental or spiritual grace, therefore, must leave their sorrows and fears outside the sanctuary, opening themselves to the faith and love of the Virgin. Sixty or so crocodiles are known to have been placed inside churches in Catholic Europe; the oldest specimens are those in Mantua and Seville, Spain. Everywhere, as in Grazie, the legend was born of the monster being killed by a hero who then brought the remains of the reptile to the shrine as a sign of thanksgiving.

These are ex post interpretations that are very interesting for the demological aspect but unrelated to the true story. As for the crocodile of Grazie, in fact, a legend tells how the specimen escaped from the Gonzaga zoo and was then killed after terrorising the inhabitants. A beautiful and fascinating legend, if told by the Mincio boatmen, but completely invented over the centuries.

Noteworthy are the rich sepulchral monuments, rich in coloured marble, including that of the Gonzaga poet and official Eugenio Cagnani and that, adorned with two symbolic caryatids, of Bartolomeo Pancera. Along the nave on the left wall immediately before the entrance to the first chapel is a tombstone from the cloister. The coat of arms with the four eagles indicates the Gonzaga family: it was, in fact, the burial place of Luigi Alessandro Gonzaga, lord of Castel Goffredo, Castiglione and Solferino, and grandfather of San Luigi Gonzaga. Alfonso, murdered in 1592, was also buried here, while no trace remains of Ferrante, respectively their son and brother (and father of the saint), also buried in Grazie

On the opposite side, in the corner is a wrought-iron support containing the 'sign' that John Paul II left on 23 June 1991 on the asphalt of the forecourt next to the Last Judgement made by madonnari. The chalk sign, which is to all intents and purposes a relic of the holy Pope, is accompanied on the wall by a large plaque commemorating the days in Mantua of John Paul II, who came to the banks of the Mincio to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the death of St. Luigi Gonzaga.

The marble pavement is relatively recent, but is already witnessed in the above-mentioned view of Moro made around the mid-19th century.

Note at the end of the nave on the right-hand side an ancient carved and gilded wooden lectern, on which the Scripture of the day can be read. This is related to two seven-armed candelabra currently placed in the first chapel on the left side. The three pieces of furniture come from one of the many synagogues in Mantua, unfortunately all but one of them destroyed. The reuse of these three pieces, fortunately always for sacred use, can be considered a strong sign of closeness and friendship between Christians and Jews.

For further information click here: Sanctuary bibliography and insights

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