The chapel next to the church is currently being renovated, and workers discovered the statue hidden in the altar. It had been carefully buried in sand and hidden under the stone altar plate. The Virgin's head has broken off her body, and the statue of the Infant Jesus is missing.
"In 1683 the whole area was largely destroyed by the Turks. We believe the chapel was destroyed during this time, and that the figure of the Virgin Mary was hidden in the building when they rebuilt it, as a way of asking for her protection,” restorer Peter Adam told the ORF.
By burying the statue in the altar, it would have been kept safe from the elements and further destruction from invading armies. Unusually, the original colours in which the stone was painted have been preserved and experts are very excited about the find.
“On the one hand, the style of the time, of which this figure is a very good example, is of a high quality. It's very exciting for an art historian to find something like this, as it's so rare,” Adam said.
The statue is being handed over to the Federal Monuments Office for investigation, and she will then be returned to Loretto and put on public display.
The head priest of the community, Father Stefan Vukits, says it's important that the public and Catholic pilgrims will be able to view the statue. "We will clean it and restore it as much as possible - without destroying any of the original work. And we will see that we find a worthy place for it.”