World heritage

Sacro Monte di Orta – A journey through time

Shadow, light and hornbeam trees

Shadow, light and hornbeam trees

The afternoon sun throws shadow-soaked, golden light onto the ground. Surely, only the parked cars keep me in the here and now. I must have missed my entry to the time warp, somewhere near, which would have brought me directly into the 16th century. Back then this hill was just a normal hill on a normal peninsula with a normal island in front of it. Soon after this incredibly appealing combination were to become the setting of a unique idea.

Lake Orta with Giulio island

Lake Orta with Giulio island

Holy Mountain – my attempt to decode it

When the holy sites in Jerusalem were no longer accessible, clergymen and artists created new monumental sites to bring the message of their faith near to believers and make it tangible in an intense way. They utilised the extraordinary beauty of the landscape and created chapels, each devoted to a particular message.

Sacro Monte di Orta

Sacro Monte di Orta

The figures in the chapels seem alien to me, with their ecstatic facial expressions, solidified and transfigured as they are. Puppet theatre for adults, scenic play with terracotta figures as large as a person. Bizarre scenes: Seduction of the monk by the devil. I do not need the devil with dark skin colour, a trident and a chicken leg. Today the diabolical is in the details, in mines, mobbing, models with anorexia.

Seductions – Without results (devil on the left)

Seductions – Without results (devil on the left)

This metaphorical language is not mine, is not aimed at me. I am not even catholic. I walk from chapel to chapel, trying to decipher the message. I begin to enjoy the challenge. What can I read from the scenes? What do I understand? What do I already know? The Holy Mountain of Orta is devoted to Francis of Assisi. Large terracotta figures and frescoes depict scenes from Francis’ life. I was looking for the sermon to the birds, but it did not exist. On my way up hill, though, I had found this modern bronze statue.

Connected to all living creatures

Connected to all living creatures

I like my picture of him as he is devotedly preaching his sermons to the birds. Maybe he is practising his rhetorical talent. This way he could sense his own bond with all living creatures and was able to perpetuate it. He deliberately chooses a life in poverty, when capitalism was gathering way. He is skilful and bright – the headliner of the church. Franz of Assisi, the extremist and maniac has probably saved the church. His teaching is an affront, because it is confronting all grievances of his time: the incredible wealth of the church and the turning away from the messages of faith.

Francis of Assisi – a maniac saves the church

As a young man Francis dreams of a career as a knight, he loves expensive clothing and parties. He is rich and ambitious. After his participation in the war between Perugia and Assisi and his imprisonment he returns home traumatised and sick. He prays a lot and he begins to steal from his father, a rich clothier, to restructure a church and help the poor. His father brings him to trial before the Episcopalian court. Francis undresses in front of the bishop and – in an dramatic act – cries of this family and breaking with his old lifestyle chooses a life in poverty devoted only to god.

Austereness as message

Austereness as message

This step corresponds to zeitgeist. Countless people find together in a new poverty movement to protest against the wealth of the church that was not the message of the gospel. The church prosecuted these heretics violently. Francis is a charismatic character, engaging, attractive and very ambitious. When he starts preaching around Assisi, young men flock to him to stay. The people call him a maniac, pazzo, at first. They cannot not do anything with him, too stark is the contrast to other ambassadors of the church. But quickly he becomes an acclaimed itinerant preacher in the region of Assisi and beyond. He is a talented entertainer, he dances and sings, cordially convinced of his message. This attitude cannot be faked. The people start to embrace his message. He walks barefooted. He takes care of lepers and gives them shelter. He practices what he preaches.

His confraternity continues to grow and he is determined to obtain the papal recognition as a fraternity. But his messages are similar to those of the heretics the church prosecutes violently. Why should the church make a difference for him? Visiting Rome he manages to catch the attention of the pope. Listening to Francis, the pope spots the potential of this mendicant to renew the church. The pope spots his potential to move the masses and guide them back to the church. He recognises his potential to bring a fresh breeze to the church and to spark the fire for the message of the gospel anew.

Recognition of the pope – Fraternity, not heretic

Recognition of the pope – Fraternity, not heretic

Having received recognition by the pope Francis can now consecrate himself to a topic that has been haunting him for long: war. He boldly plans to participate in the fourth crusade as a preacher. He either manages to convert the sultan thus preventing further bloodshed or he would die as a martyr. Accompanied by only one friar Francis crosses the front’s no man’s land to see the sultan. Against Francis’ expectation the sultan listens to him attentively and respectfully, but is not proselytised. Bad and in vain Francis returns home from the crusade. After this setback he resorts to reclusion. Aged 44 he dies soon after surrounded by his friars. Two years later Francis is canonised a saint. Today the appeal of his message is equally strong.

Seeing the sultan

Seeing the sultan

Fresco canonisation

Fresco canonisation

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2 Comments

  • Reply
    Mette
    5. November 2013 at 20:23

    I thought of going up the Sacri Monti this weekend, but settled for the funicula to Brunate instead.

    • Reply
      Stefanie
      7. November 2013 at 09:57

      No funiculars up to a Sacro Monte ;( I love funiculars, though. Did you enjoy Brunate? Haven’t been there yet.

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