The Sacred Mountains of Piedmont and Lombardy

A visit to a Sacred Mountain is a way to get in touch with the religious spirit of the people during the counter-reformation era.

In the pre-Alpine area of Lombardy and Piedmont, within the golf districts of Turin North Piedmont, Lake Maggiore and Lake Como, there are some interesting sanctuaries in terms of structure, location and decorative richness. These are the so-called Sacred Mountains, included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2003.

From the mid-fifteenth century, the Ottoman Empire expansion initially directed towards Bulgaria and the centre of the Balkan peninsula began to focus on the Mediterranean. After the capture of Constantinople in 1453 and the conquest of Greece in 1456, the Turkish control over the Aegean made pilgrimage trips to the Holy Land unsafe. The Franciscan friars who were the caretakers of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem thought of recreating sanctuaries in the West which, like new Jerusalem, would replicate the holy places and could become a pilgrimage destination. Three localities were chosen: Varallo in Valsesia, Montaione in Tuscany and Braga in Portugal.

The construction works of these complexes began in the last decades of the 15th century, they were devotional paths towards the main sanctuary where, within a natural context, were built several chapels representing the places touched by pilgrims in the Holy Land. Specifically, as regards the Sacred Mountain of Varallo, the initiative was taken by the Franciscan Bernardino Caimi who obtained the approval of the Duchy of Milan in 1486 and began the construction of the basilica of Santa Maria Delle Grazie, near the Franciscan convent in Varallo and the first structures of the Sacred Mountain. After the death of Brother Bernardino, from the early 16th century, the direction of the works was taken by Gaudenzio Ferrari. The artist, born between 1475 and 1480 in Valsesia, was one of the leading exponents of the Lombard Renaissance. The artist dedicated almost three decades to the construction and decoration of the Sacred Mountain of Varallo: he was responsible for the design of some chapels, of some wooden and then terracotta sculptures and of the frescoes that form the background of the biblical scenes hosted in the chappels. We must thank Gaudenzio Ferrari for the poetics and scenographic layout that will characterize the construction of the Sacred Mountains in this area over the centuries to come.
In the 16th century, the Roman Church found itself facing a difficult period due to the Lutheran Reformation. In the region between Lombardy and Piedmont, the push against the reformer was concentrated in the bishop of Milan Carlo Borromeo, who saw in the model of the Sacred Mountain of Varallo a spiritual and didactic tool useful in countering the tensions that the Reformation had created in northern Italy. The devotional path of Varallo was changed, taking it from a topological organization, replicating the places of pilgrimages to the Holy Land, to a chronological arrangement based on episodes from the life and passion of Christ.
In the richness of the decorative and figurative apparatus of the various chapels, it is possible to imagine a glowing response to the Lutheran criticism concerning the adoration of sacred images. After a pause at the end of the 16th century, the works resumed with greater vigour in the 17th century to finish in the third decade of the 18th century.

From the end of the 16th to the beginning of the 18th century, other Sacred Mountains were built in this area, of which the most important in addition to that of Varallo are those of Crea, Orta, Varese, Oropa, Ossuccio, Ghiffa, Domodossola and Valperga.

The Sacred Mountain of Crea is connected to the convent and the basilica of Santa Maria of Serralunga of Crea on the hills of Monferrato. Tradition traces the foundation of this place of worship to Saint Eusebio, who was bishop of Vercelli in the 4th century. Historically, the first document that mentions this abbey is a confirmation of privileges issued by Emperor Henry IV and dated to 1060.
In 1589, the prior, Father Costantino Massino, concomitantly with the enlargement of the church and stimulated by the luck that in that period had the richly decorated chapels of Varallo, he decided to replicate this model considering a devotional path, dedicated to the life of the Madonna and the mysteries of the Rosary, which from the abbey could lead to the top of the nearby hill where to build the most important chapel dedicated to the coronation of Mary in Paradise. The project started with the construction of ten chapels which later should have become forty according to the prior’s plans. We know that at the end of the 17th century the Sacred Mountain of Crea had eighteen chapels and seventeen hermitages dedicated to the figures of saints. The Napoleonic suppression of religious orders and the sacking which in 1801 the French troops operated to damage the sanctuary reduced it to ruin. After more than fifty years of neglect, in 1859, the “Society of Restoration of the Sanctuary of Crea” was founded. The monumental complex today has twenty-three chapels and five hermitages.

The Sacred Mountain of Orta is located on the hill overlooking the town of Orta San Giulio, in the forest of Saint Nicolao where there was a church of the same name. In the second half of the 16th century, at the urging of Carlo Borromeo, it was decided to rebuild the church by connecting it to a new convent that was to house the Franciscan Capuchin friars. Based on the experience of Varallo and using the same artists and craftsmen who in those years was working in that construction site, it is thought to create a devotional path also in Orta, in this case, dedicated to the figure of Saint Francesco. The initial project included more than thirty chapels but only twenty were built. The route unwinds on the wild slopes of the hill to culminate at the church of Saints Nicolao and Francesco which overlooks Lake Orta. We can recognize three stylistic phases in the chapels of the Sacred Mountain of Orta. From 1590 to about the middle of the following century, the style is part of the late Lombard Mannerism. The second phase, which covers the second half of the 17th century, is Baroque style while the last interventions in the 18th century see the prevalence of the Rococo style.

To the north of Varese, on Mount Orona, tradition reports that a chapel, dedicated to the Madonna and founded by Saint Ambrogio to celebrate the victory over the Arians, was already present in the early Christian era. Certainly, it is the presence in the 9th century of a sanctuary, of which the crypt has been preserved, perhaps built on a pre-existing early medieval structure. Being an important pilgrimage destination throughout the late Middle Ages, a small inhabited village arose around the sanctuary. In 1472 the church was enlarged, in the following years, there was a community of nuns which took its seat in a hermitage adjacent to the church and which in 1474 obtained permission from Pope Sixtus IV to build a monastery. In the early 17th century Sister Maria Tecla Cid promoted the construction of a path that could easily put the sanctuary in contact with the Varese plain and at the same time offered the possibility of refreshment and meditation for pilgrims. The idea found the support of other religious men and wealthy families in the area. Work began in 1604 on a project by the architect Giovanni Bernascone. The project included a cobbled path of about two kilometres interspersed with arches, fountains and fourteen chapels dedicated to the mysteries of the Rosary, the fifteenth was to be considered the church of Santa Maria del Monte. Thirteen of the fourteen chapels were finished in 1623. After a pause due to the plague of 1630, the works dedicated mainly to the fulfilment of the decorative apparatus inside the chapels resumed, works that were completed in 1698. Compared to the other Sacred Mountains, the Varese one, thanks to the speed of the works, has kept faith with Bernascone’s initial project with stylistic homogeneity and a strong scenographic intent in integrating buildings, nature and landscape.

North of Biella, in the Oropa basin, a natural amphitheatre formed by Mount Mucrone there is one of the most important Marian sanctuaries in northern Italy. As for the sanctuary of Serralunga di Crea, its foundation dates to Saint Eusebio in the 4th century. The first document attesting the presence of religious buildings in the Oropa basin is a papal bull of Innocent III dated to 1207 where two churches are mentioned, one dedicated to Saint Maria and the second to Saint Bartolomeo. While the former has been lost, incorporated into subsequent developments of the sanctuary, the hermitage of Saint Bartolomeo has recently been rediscovered and has been dated between the 8th and 9th centuries. The great fortune of the sanctuary began in the 14th century with the display of one Gothic statue depicting a black Madonna, and then reached the period of greatest expansion during the 17th century, also thanks to the direct involvement of the Dukes of Savoy. The work on the Sacred Mountain, located on a wooded hill next to the sanctuary, began in 1621 thanks to the initiative of the Franciscan friar Fedele da San Germano and lasted for more than a century. The initial project included twenty chapels representing scenes from the life of Mary taken from the canonical and apocryphal Gospels. In addition to the House of Savoy, numerous noble families from Biella participated economically in the construction of the various chapels. Today the Sacred Mountain has nineteen chapels, twelve, dedicated to episodes from the life of the Virgin, arranged in two parallel rows along the path that leads to the top of the hill and other seven representing other biblical episodes.

Along the western coast of Lake Como, on a rocky spur overlooking the town of Ossuccio, stands the sanctuary of the Beata Vergine del Soccorso. In this place, already in Roman times, there was a sacred place dedicated to the cult of Ceres and recent excavations have found traces of this building. The current church is the result of a rebuilding in the first quarter of the 16th century. Between 1635 and 1710 the devotional path of the Sacro Monte was built with fourteen chapels dedicated to the mysteries of the Rosary. It seems that also here the promoters were the Franciscan friars with the economic collaboration of important noble families of the lake, whose contribution is attested by the presence of their family crests on some chapels. The same theme, the morphological similarities and the coinciding urban layout allow us to identify in the Sacred Mountain of Varese the model that inspired the designers of the Sacred Mountain of Ossuccio.

Similar location, but on Lake Maggiore, it has the Sacred Mountain of Ghiffa. Here, above the town of Ghiffa, there was a sanctuary dedicated to the cult of the Holy Trinity. Even if a foundation dated to the early Christian era is assumed, we only have traces of a late medieval Romanesque building. The first document certifying the existence of a religious building on the hill dates to 1591 and describes the church visited by the bishop of Novara on a pastoral visit. From that document, we know that the triple representation of Christ that is still placed above the altar was already present. The central body of the sanctuary was rebuilt in the first half of the 17th century. At the end of this reconstruction, it was thought about the construction of a devotional path. We know nothing about the project except that the works were interrupted after the construction of only three chapels. The elegant arcade containing the stations of the Via Crucis was built next to the sanctuary in the mid-18th century. After a century of neglect, in 1985 restoration and enhancement works were undertaken which allowed the Sacred Mountain of Ghiffa to be placed on the list of world heritage sites.

It is always thanks to the initiative of the Franciscans that started the construction of the Sacred Mountain of Domodossola. Here, in 1656, on the hill where in medieval times the Mattarella castle dominated, before being destroyed by Swiss soldiers in 1415, two Capuchin friars from the convent of Domodossola decided to create a devotional path that retraced the stages of the passion of Christ. The project involved the construction of an octagonal sanctuary on the top of the hill which was renamed “Mount Calvario” and a series of crosses to mark the fourteen stations of the Via Crucis along the path to reach the church. Over time the crosses were expected to be progressively replaced by richly decorated chapels. The construction of the sanctuary quickly proceeded thanks to the contributions of the faithful, so much so that in 1662 it was possible to celebrate the first religious service. The construction of the chapels, twelve in total, since the last three stations of the Via Crucis was built in the sanctuary, began soon after. Among the first artists who dedicated themselves to the creation of the sculptures was the Milanese Dionigi Bussola, who was also involved in the Varallo factory, who gave to the complex an imprint inspired by Bernini’s Roman Baroque. The works for the end of the route took up the whole 18th century.

The last Sacred Mountain is that of Belmonte, which dominates Valperga in the Canavese area. Here, in a wonderful naturalistic setting, a small sanctuary dedicated to the cult of the Virgin Mary arose around the year 1000, on the initiative of a small group of Benedictine nuns. In 1601 the nuns were forced to leave the convent due to the provisions that had arisen from the Council of Trent which provided that female convents should no longer be in wild places. A document kept in Valperga narrates that on that occasion, while the statue of the Madonna was about to be removed, a miraculous event took place, the interior of the church darkened and the face of the statue whitened. Thanks to this prodigious event, the statue was left in the church of Belmonte. The Franciscan friars, who took over the monastery from the Benedictine nuns, enlarged it and rebuilt the church in 1620. In 1712 work began for the construction of the thirteen chapels dedicated to the passion of Christ along a circular path, around the top of the hill, that starts and returns to the sanctuary. Most of the sculptures in the chapels are due to the work of the master potters of nearby Castellamonte. The fame of the miraculous virtues of the effigy of Mary spread throughout Piedmont and the collection of votive offerings kept at the sanctuary is testimony to this. After the abandonment of the Napoleonic period, the convent and the church were renovated at the end of the 19th century. The pillars dedicated to the mysteries of the Rosary that line the old pedestrian street that leads from Valperga to Belmonte are also from this period.

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