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Santuario della Madonna di San Luca

Religious building, Bologna

Santuario della Madonna di San Luca: Attraction informations

The shrine dedicated to the Beata Vergine di San Luca (Santuario della Madonna di San Luca) is the most famous church in Bologna. It stands on the top of the hill of La Guardia, the highest of the Bolognese hills, called La Guardia as its rises like a guardian over the city, and was for this reason used for defensive measures.

Popular stories, legends and local traditions are linked to the shrine.

Firstly, the feeling that the Bolognese prove when returning home after a trip, and seeing its shape in the distance finally feel at home. San Luca is in fact easily seen from the railway station, the airport and most of the streets and highways that pass through Bologna. 

The portico of San Luca

The fondness, devotion and sense of belonging that the Bolognese feel regarding San Luca have always been immense. The long portico that today unites the shrine to the city center was built to allow pilgrims to reach the shrine protected from sun, rain and snow.

666 arches compose this long portico, a number that has forever been linked to the devil. The popular legends claim that the Madonna, represented in the shrine, squashes under her feet the snake (therefore the Sins) represented in the portico that climbs like a snake up the hill. 

The history of the Icon

The core of the devotion towards the Church of San Luca is a wooden sheet with a painting representing Virgin Mary with Jesus Christ in her arms. The author is thought to be evangelist Luke, who arrived in Bologna after surviving the many dangers of a pilgrimage and who dreamt about the exact location for the shrine. He travelled from West to East and upon his arrival realized that the place of his dreams was the hill of La Guardia. Here he founded the church to protect the sacred icon.

What is known historically speaking is that the icon entered Bologna between the 13th and 14th centuries, when the original structure of the church was being finished. A lady from a noble Bolognese family felt the need for a praying site on the hill, and asking Pope Celestine II got the approval for the construction of the Church.

The church and its interior

Architectonically speaking the current structure of the church does not reflect the original project. The church has undergone several restorations as it was severely damaged throughout the centuries. The last restoration, which gives the church her current appearance, was in the 18th century under the design of Carlo Francesco Dotti, the same architect who finished the construction of the long portico connecting the church to the city.

The interior of the church displays amazing art pieces from various artists, like Guido Reni and Guercino. Visitors are welcome into the church out of service hours and invited to walk up the dome through a narrow passage between its walls. In the past, it was also possible to get to the dome using a cable car which connected the church to Bologna.

On specific periods of the year, San Luca is the stage for collective prayers and gatherings. The main event is probably the yearly procession in May, when the Virgin’s icon moves from the shrine to the city. The bishop awaits in Porta Saragozza and welcomes the icon, taking it to Saint Peter, the Cathedral of Bologna.