Tradition has it that on the 6th July, 1484, a child saw the image of the Virgin and Child painted on the walls of the Prato prison begin to move. After the phenomenon was repeated a number of times, the Basilica of Santa Maria delle Carceri (“of prisons”) was built on the site.
The architect Giuliano da Sangallo began work in 1485, creating a church in the form of a Greek cross. The alignment of the building was very carefully calculated so that on the anniversary of the miracle (the 15th July according to the Gregorian calendar adopted in 1582), a ray of sunlight would fall directly onto the centre of the high altar at the precise hour of 15.19 (14.03 solar time). Furthermore, the axis of the building was so calculated that on the day of the summer solstice (21 June) the azimuth of the sun would correspond with the structure’s angle of alignment and a ray of light falling down through the cupola would illuminate the revered image of the Virgin.
The intention was not so much to create belief in a new miracle as to preserve the original miracle of 1484 by reproducing it each year. The sanctuary has continued to be a place of devotion and still attracts large numbers of the faithful on these two special days.
So next time you are in Tuscany, pay a visit to Prato and see this Basilica which was designed to preserve the miracle of 1484.
(Adapted from Secret Tuscany by Carlo Caselli)