Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Christian Art: Sacred Mountain

~from Chiesa, here's an excerpt written by Fr. Timothy Verdon on the art that inspired piety at the Sacred Mountain of Varallo
At the foot of the Sacred Mountain, where the path begins that leads to the chapels, there stands a convent, Santa Maria delle Grazie, built by the people of Varallo and donated, together with the initial constructions on the mountain, to the Franciscan friars on April 14, 1493.

Twenty years later, in 1513, a grandiose work was realized in the church of this convent, intended to be the introduction to the path among the chapels: a fresco 8 meters high and almost 11 wide, depicting many of the scenes that would later be created in terra cotta in the chapels on the mountain, from the birth of the Savior to his passion and resurrection. The author of the enormous mural depiction was Gaudenzio Ferrari, the same painter who at the time was occupied in modeling and coloring the first sculptures on the mountain.

In this unified iconographic project that extends from Santa Maria delle Grazie to the chapels of the Sacred Mountain, what is striking is not so much the duplication of themes as the didactic function of the fresco, executed on the dividing wall between the nave and the sanctuary of the church.

This means that the rich sequence of images narrating the human life of Christ was conceived not only as an introduction to the chapels, but also and above all as a key to the rite celebrated at the main altar, visible through the largest of the three openings in the dividing wall.

This pictorial "frame" taught the onlooker to connect the Eucharistic mystery – the bread and wine that at the consecration of the Mass become the body and blood of Christ, the sacramental re-presentation of his sacrifice on the cross – to the events recalled in the scenes depicted. And it is no accident that the largest of these scenes, situated directly above the opening toward the altar, is the crucifixion, with the realistic body of the redeemer exactly above the point where, from the nave, the faithful see the host and then the chalice raised above the altar.

The effective point of departure for the pilgrimage – meaning the experience that preceded and conditioned the laborious ascent and the sight of the sculpted figures – was therefore the most sacred of the Christian liturgical signs, the Eucharist, "annotated" by the images surrounding it...

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For the ancient pilgrims, what was new was the systematic illustration of the entire life of Christ in a direct visual relationship with the liturgical rite. And it must have been absolutely new to discover afterward, in the chapels, three-dimensional sacred representations of these same scenes.

The entire experience certainly had an impact of mystagogy, of initiation into the sacramental mystery: first, in the invitation to connect the body and blood present in the Eucharist with the individual episodes painted on the partition – the body of Christ conceived in the annunciation, adored by the Magi, baptized by John, scourged, crucified, risen – and then, in the ascent of the Sacred Mountain, with the same scenes but in three dimensions now, as if the sign translated first into an imaginative depiction had then been materialized, in the hardship of the ascent, in a physical presence. As the bread and wine in the hands of the priest become the true body and blood of Christ, so in the experience of the pilgrim the same real presence took on greater and greater concreteness.

In the hardship of the ascent: meaning in the exertion of an ascent through the woods that unveiled the connection between the life of man and the destiny of the cosmos...
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