Shrines, Chapels and other Secrets in the Mountains of Italy
Among the wooded foothills and rocky promontories of Italy's rugged landscape lie numerous mountain shrines and chapels. Founded by local saints, hermits or more often by the discovery of a miraculous icon or statue, these sacred mountains and their shrines are still popular destinations for the faithful. Most of these mountain shrines are dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the Mysteries of the Rosary, however others venerate popular patron saints like Francis of Assisi.
Most of the Sacred Mountains listed here date to the times of the Catholic Counter-Reformation while others have a much older history, being worshipped even in pagan times. Even though every region of Italy is home to these types of sacred places, Northern Italy is home to an especially popular group of nine mountain shrines known as the Sacri Monti. These shrines, located in the regions of Lombardy and Piedmont can be visited individually or as part of a pilgrimage. Pilgrims entering Italy on the Via Francigena can easily incorporate the Sacri Monti, (recently included as a UNESCO World Heritage Site) into their route to Rome.
Sacro Monte di Varallo
Located in Varallo Sesia, this sacred mountain is the oldest of the nine and acts as a symbolic pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Since an actual pilgrimage to the Holy Land became increasingly dangerous, churchmen from Milan decided to create this New Jerusalem for pilgrims to visit. This and the other Sacri Monti were used as tools of the Catholic Church to combat the growing Protestant movements of Northern Europe. The complex consists of a Baroque basilica and over forty chapels containing life-size figures that are grouped according to the sacred sites of Jerusalem.
Sacro Monte di Crea
Begun in 1589 on a peaceful wooded hill, this series of twenty three chapels is dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta . The sanctuary lies behind the devotional path of the Sacro Monte and houses a venerated statue of the Virgin Mary. Local tradition states that this statue was placed there by Saint Eusebius of Vercelli, a 4th century Bishop.
Sacro Monte di Orta
Dedicated to the veneration of San Francesco, this sacred mountain is located in the province of Novara. The complex contains twenty chapels depicting the life of Italy's Patron Saint. Among the wooded lanes and chapels lies the Basilica di San Nicolo, where the picture of the Madonna of the Pity is still the object of an ancient religious cult.
Sacro Monte di Varese
Dedicated to the Mysteries of the Rosary, the Sacro Monte is comprised of fourteen peaceful chapels built along a mountain path. The Sacred Mount has been a site of worship for centuries, with legends attributing its origins to Saint Ambrose of Milan. The Sacro Monte di Varese is the site of a yearly a pilgrimage commemorating the origin of the Via delle Cappelle in 1604.
Sacro Monte di Oropa
This sacred mount in the province of Biella is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. The twelve chapels lie along a path winding its way up the mount and depict the life of the Virgin in fresco and with brilliantly painted terracotta figurines. The Sanctuary of La Madonna di Orta, a house of worship that pre-dates the mountain chapels houses an ancient Black Madonna.
Sacro Monte di Ossuccio
This complex is located on the Western shore of Lago di Como and is comprised of fourteen chapels dedicated to the Blessed Virgin of Succor (Madonna del Soccorso). The legend of this sacred mount is the familiar tale of a statue of the Madonna being discovered and moved, only to return to its original location. However according to the ancient writer Pliny the Younger, this location was once dedicated to Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture.
Sacro Monte di Ghiffa
The Sacro Monte della SS.Trinità di Ghiffa is located in a peaceful nature reserve overlooking Lago Maggiore and dedicated to the Holy Trinity. The complex, mostly the work of unknown artists is incomplete and contains only four chapels and the main sanctuary.
Sacro Monte di Domodossola
Located in Northern Piemonte, this sacred mount is a Capuchin Calvary. Fifteen chapels dedicated to the Stations of the Cross (Via Crucis) are spaced along the devotional route leading to the final two chapels in the Santuario del SS. Crocifisso at the summit of Monte Mattarella. The Sacro Monte complex is also home to an oratory dedicated to an ancient fresco depicting the Madonna delle Grazie.
Sacro Monte di Belmonte
Also dedicated to the Stations of the Cross, the Sacro Monte di Belmonte is a Calvary located close to the city of Torino in the Canavese. Along a circular devotional path at the top of a wooded hill are thirteen chapels and a large sanctuary dedicated to the Via Crucis. The surrounding area is also home to a larger pilgrim route that includes fifteen smaller chapels that can be incorporated into a visit to the Sacro Monte.
Sources/For More Information:
- Holy Mountains of Europe Official website: http://www.sacrimonti.net
- UNESCO Entry: http://whc.unesco.org/pg.cfm?cid=31&id_site=1068
- Sacro Monte di Ossuccio: http://www.comunicare.it/luoghi/luoghi/ossuccio.htm
- Sacro Monte di Domodossola: http://www.sacromontedomodossola.it/
- Sacro Monte di Ghiffa: http://www.sacromonteghiffa.it
By Justin Demetri