The Empress María and the Casita de Nazaret:
A Reconstructive History

Pieza del mes: Septiembre 2023
Autora invitada: Erin Giffin, Skidmore College

Cómo citar este artículo/How to cite this article: Erin Giffin, “The Empress María and the Casita de Nazaret: A Reconstructive History”, Agenart: La agencia artística de las mujeres de la Casa de Austria, 1532-1700, 6 de septiembre de 2023. Consultado: 27 de febrero de 2024. URL:

Figure 1. Casita de Nazaret. Madrid, Convent of the Descalzas Reales.

The Casita de Nazaret [Figure 1], or Holy House of the Virgin, is a peculiar devotional replica within the walls of the Descalzas Reales convent in Madrid. As a royally sponsored convent, nearly every addition to the complex since its founding by Juana de Austria in the 1550s has been claimed by prestigious patrons and artists. Yet the Casita remains unaffiliated. This lack of attribution was undoubtedly compounded by the loss of historic documentation at the convent during the Spanish Civil War. Modern historians are thus left with secondary sources and the structure itself to bear witness to its facture. This summary report on the Casita de Nazaret examines the replica and its position within the Descalzas Reales to better comprehend the original commission on site, and proposes a working theory on its likely era of construction and the circle of potential patrons behind its commission.

The Casita de Nazaret is a replica of the Santa Casa di Loreto, a Catholic cult object venerated on the eastern coast of Italy [Figures 2, 3]. The Santa Casa is supposedly the Holy House of the Virgin Mary, the site of the Annunciation where the Archangel Gabriel informed the Virgin that she would bear the Son of God. According to its miracle narrative, the Santa Casa flew—at the Virgin’s request, assisted by angels—from the Holy Land in the late thirteenth century, ultimately settling in the papal territories of Italy. The structure’s popularity increased steadily across the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as the miracle narrative proliferated, and as successive popes embellished the cult site with indulgences, titles (deemed the “Second Holiest City” after Rome), and artistic adornments. By the late sixteenth century, replicas of the Santa Casa appeared in various devout communities. Their specificity increased dramatically in the seventeenth century thanks to circulating prints of the Santa Casa emerging from multiple cosmopolitan centers simultaneously, as for example the French publication of the Santa Casa in Adam Philippon’s Le veritable plan et pourtrait de la Maison Miraculeuse de la S.te Vierge, ainsy qu’elle se voit á present á Lorette (1649) [Figure 4].

The Casita falls into the earlier category of replicas in that the structure and its decoration are not apparently influenced directly from the print media standardized by the 1640s. As it stands today, the structure is a simple one-room interior, with a pitched wooden-roof, encompassed by a slender, one-meter walkway around three sides of the building. Most early modern structural replicas tend to defer to the barrel-vaulted interior of the Santa Casa following its initial renovations when the marble exterior was added to the original (the architectural framework of which was installed by the late-1530s). This difference indicates that the replica at the Descalzas may be based more on imagery of the Santa Casa in translation—its flight from the Holy Land into Europe—which showcases the pitched roofline of the house prior to the subsequent Papal interventions, as in the frontispiece image of Girolamo Angelita’s popular Lauretanae Virginis Historia (1530) [Figure 5].

Figure 5. Frontispiece of Girolamo Angelita, Lauretanae Virginis Historia (1530).

The distinct roofline aside, the artists and patrons of the Casita still included some allusions to the contemporary edifice at Loreto. The frescoed exterior running along the western external wall predates the seventeenth-century additions to the exterior. This wall presents a series of saints with their attributes and title cartouches, all rendered in grisailles, in grey tones intended to represent carved stone. Their columnar postures, and rhythmic distribution across the wall’s surface, recall the many freestanding, white-marble sibyls and prophets invested in the Santa Casa’s marble exterior. The decorative convention of saints conceptually buttressing the holy building continues across the Casita’s southern and eastern-facing external walls, which were repainted with bright, polychromatic figures added by Dionisio Mantuano, who signed his work sometime before his death in 1684.

The Casita ends abruptly on its northern end, abutting directly against the wall that divides the chapel of the Casita from the Chapel of the Miracle. This later chapel was added to the convent in 1678 by Juan José de Austria (1629-1679), natural-born son of Philip IV (r. 1621-1665). Previous scholarship assumed that Juan José de Austria’s chapel was added onto the Chapel of the Casita; however, I argue that the Chapel of the Miracle was actually built into the preexisting chapel. My reasons for this interpretation stem from period attestations about the replica, coupled with the structure’s current dimensions. Fray Juan Carrillo (1558–1616), a Franciscan theologian and confessor of Sister Margarita de la Cruz at the Descalzas, wrote the first secondary documentation of the Casita in his 1616 publication, Relacion Historica de la Real fundacion del Monasterio de las Descalças de S. Clara de la villa de Madrid. Carrillo states that, at the time of publication, the Casita was commensurate in dimension with the original at Loreto, in width, length and height. The current house’s width is indeed 4.2 meters, which corresponds almost exactly to the internal dimensions of the Santa Casa at Loreto (4.1 meters). But whereas the Santa Casa measures approximately 9.5 meters in length internally, the Casita’s length is only about 5 meters. If we measure the north-south depth of the Chapel of the Miracle next door, we find another approximate 5 meters, which coupled with the depth consumed by the intervening wall, would have allowed for the entire length of the Casita to exist, freestanding, with a slender walkway around all four sides.

The argument for Juan José de Austria’s invasive intervention is further augmented by structural evidence: the lateral walls of the Casita disappear directly into the surface of the wall separating the Chapel of the Casita from the Chapel of the Miracle. This implies that the dividing wall was built around surviving remnants of the semi-dismantled Casita, rather than the Casita being built neatly within the confines of the current room. Inside the replica, the plaster of the newly added wall bows slightly at its corner joins, receding from the canted ceiling beams above as it runs down beside the perimeter of pre-existing frescos on the lateral walls. The northern internal wall is also decorated with much later frescoes that frame and present the altarpiece of the Annunciation. Externally, the western wall’s grisailles saints end unceremoniously with Santa Escolástica [Figures 6, 7], whose figural form and name cartouche are framed with less precise architectural detail than what is visible around Saint Roch on the opposite end of the same wall. Principally, the protrusion of the crossetted corner beside Saint Roch does not appear beside Saint Escolástica. The strict verticality of the frame beside the woman, and its pale execution, create an asymmetrical frame that would have been unacceptable in the design’s original construction. These multiple details, among others, reveal significant alterations to the replica sometime after its initial construction.

With Carrillo’s 1616 declaration of the accurate scale of the Casita as our terminus ante quem, the question becomes when the Casita may have been constructed. I argue that the likeliest period of production would be from the decades surrounding 1600. Again, secondary source materials provide the foundation for this interpretation. The canon Francisco de Padilla published a Spanish version of the Loretan miracle narrative, the Historia de la santissima casa y devotissimo Santuario de nuestra Señora de Loreto, in a publishing house in Puerta del Sol—mere steps from the convent—which he dedicated to the Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia (1566-1633) prior to her taking tertiary vows at the Descalzas (which she would do in 1621). To be clear, Isabel’s status at the Descalzas was largely symbolic, because she was the sitting ruler of the Spanish Netherlands, and thus unable to participate personally in affairs of the convent. Padilla recounts the now standard narrative of the miracle translation, and further augments his text with contemporary events related to Loretan devotion. For example, he argues that a growing interest in the Loretan cult led King Philip II (r. 1556-1598) to found a female college in Madrid for orphaned girls, the Colegio de las niñas huérfanas, in 1585. The college was dedicated to Loreto, and the king donated a replica of the Madonna di Loreto cult statue to the community for their own devotional use. Padilla’s text also includes roughly accurate dimensions of the Loretan archetype; the structure was 35 pies (feet) long, 15.5 pies wide, and 5.5 varas (yards) tall, which converts to approximately 9.75 metres long, 4.3 metres wide, and 4.6 metres tall. With all of this documentary specificity, it is surprising that Padilla makes no mention of the Casita de Nazaret at the Descalzas proper. This would have been a glaring omission on Padilla’s part had the structure already existed in 1588, especially given the author’s explicit documentation of Loretan devotions within the convent. Most notably, Padilla describes how the Madonna di Loreto cult statue from the Madrid college of orphans was processed to the Descalzas specifically to heal Empress María (1528-1603) of an unnamed illness in 1587.

Based on the information culled from secondary sources, the Habsburg women directly touched by Loretan devotion at the Descalzas Reales at this time were the Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia and Empress María. To this pair we must add Sister Margarita de la Cruz, whose confessor was none other than fray Juan Carrillo, the first author to document the existence of the Descalzas replica in 1616. Though Isabel Clara Eugenia presented herself as a devout member of the Poor Clare community, as in her 1625 portrait by the workshop of Peter Paul Rubens [Figure 8], she never made the Descalzas her permanent residence. By contrast, Empress María arrived in 1582, and Sister Margarita de la Cruz in 1588. Both would live the rest of their lives within the convent’s walls.

Of the two remaining women, I believe that Empress María, or a member of her immediate circle, would be the likeliest patron of the Descalzas Casita. When Empress María retired to the Descalzas from Austria, she brought with her several religious images and reliquaries. This indicates María’s avid desire to continue augmenting the collection started by the convent’s founder and her sister, Juana de Austria. It is also relevant to bear in mind María’s life experiences prior to her entry into the Descalzas. The idea to construct the replica may have come from her time as Holy Roman Empress. María spent her tenure between what is today Germany and Austria, two territories with strong, Loretan devotional bases. The Habsburg’s Austrian, Czech and Polish territories would count among the forefront of communities constructing Sante Case in the late-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for example the early replica at Horšovský Týn by the Lobkovicz family (no longer extant). As with the Descalzas iteration, this Czech replica is described in period documentation as distinct from the ‘canonical type,’ and therefore similarly employed unusual traits prior to the wide dissemination of standard print media. Finally, María was also famously healed by the sculpted Madonna di Loreto in 1587 according to Padilla’s text. Empress María had the means, the position, and the devotion to execute this early replica, either in life, or commissioned commemoratively after her death in 1603. Thus, I currently date the Casita de Nazaret to between 1588—the publication date of Padilla’s text sans mention of the structure—and 1610, closing the decade in which Empress María died.

The context for the Casita de Nazaret at the Descalzas Reales, as broken down in this article, is not an exhaustive summary: more facets of the house deserve concerted re-evaluation as we delve into its opaque past. The theories proposed in this article are based on current research and resources available, and may be subject to change as more scholars interrogate the patronage of Habsburg women in Spain. Even so, this case study reiterates the importance of treating surviving artworks and objects as sources of documentary evidence in and of themselves, particularly when textual trails run dry.

Further Reading:

  • Juan Carrillo, Relacion Historica de la Real fundacion del Monasterio de las Descalças de S. Clara de la villa de Madrid (Madrid, 1616).
  • Vanessa de Cruz Medina, “The Relicario of the Descalzas Reales: Juana of Austria’s Collection of Relics”, in The Making of Juana of Austria: Gender, Art, and Patronage in Early Modern Iberia, ed. Noelia García Pérez (Baton Rouge, LA: LSU Press, 2021), 289–320.
  • Erin Giffin, “Conflicting Sources for 3D Replicas: Adam Philippon’s Santa Casa of Loreto,” online article published on the Thinking 3D Forum website, a research initiative between the University of St Andrews, Magdalen College, and the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford (published 20 July 2019 at:
  • Erin Giffin, “Retracing the Frame: Frescoed External Revetment of Santa Casa Replicas across the Czech Republic,” in Madonne. Reframing Images of Mary in Early Modern Spaces, ed. Chiara Franceschini and Erin Giffin (Turnhout: Brepols, forthcoming).
  • Eleanor H. Goodman, “Royal Piety, Faith, Religious Politics, and the Experience of Art at the Convent of the Descalzas Reales in Madrid,” unpublished doctoral dissertation, New York University, 2001.
  • Floriano Grimaldi, L’Ornamento marmoreo della Santa Cappella di Loreto (Loreto, 1999).
  • Annemarie Jordan Gschwend, “The Monastery I have Built in This City of Madrid: Mapping Juana de Austria’s Royal Spaces in the Descalzas Reales Convent,” in Representing Women’s Political Identity in the Early Modern Iberian World, ed. Jeremy Roe and Jean Andrews (New York: Routledge, 2020), 127–45.
  • Francisco de Padilla, Historia de la santissima casa y devotissimo Santuario de nuestra Señora de Loreto (Madrid, 1588).

Captions to works referred to in the text:

  • Figure 1. Casita de Nazaret. Madrid, Convent of the Descalzas Reales. Patrimonio Nacional.
  • Figure 2. Santa Casa di Loreto (exterior). Le Marche, Italy.    
  • Figure 3. Santa Casa di Loreto (interior). Le Marche, Italy.
  • Figure 4. Adam Philippon, Santa Casa Interior (1649), etching, attributed to Stefano della Bella. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum.
  • Figure 5. Frontispiece of Girolamo Angelita, Lauretanae Virginis Historia (1530). Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek – 4 H.mon. 123#Beibd.1.
  • Figure 6. Casita de Nazaret, exterior, western wall (detail). Patrimonio Nacional.
  • Figure 7. Casita de Nazaret, exterior, western wall (detail). Patrimonio Nacional.
  • Figure 8. Peter Paul Rubens and workshop, Portrait of Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia, Spanish Regent of the Low Countries, as a Nun, 1625. © Norton Simon Art Foundation.