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The Great Mountain Theatre
 

Visiting a Sacred Mount can be, still today, a very rich experience in emotions, surprises and mistery. And surely it was so during the VI-VII centuries, when most people were illitterate or not very accultured, therefore much easily suggestible at the sight of holy scenes; these representations were set within chapels just with dramatic intention, typical of theatre, in order to involve and move visitors. Entering the shadowy sacred building’s interior, looking through the wooden gratings, discovering statues expressions, almost human when touched by sunrays light or lights coming from lighters, are alway touching and involving experiences.

These holy scenes representations, characterized by remarkable theatricality and dramatic force, tell life moments; sculptors gave them such a real shape – almost photograpic, we would say nowadays – that they look real.

The numberous in full relief statues of angels and devils, men and women, children and animals still evocate real situations that are underlined by interiors pictorial and decorative settings, and by lights and shadows also carefully studied by setting inventors.

Putting hundreds figures at the interior of a small building which rises on the slope of an isolated mount, had been a complicated undertaking but also the sum of many converging efforts of different skilled workers: master builders, sculptors and carvers, painters and carpenters, glass makers and blacksmiths and with them, not willing cooperators, the workers’ families compelled to follow the travelling artists.

Sacred Mounts ‘creators’ had been numberous and each one, with their own roles, workshop cooperators and apprentices, acted like they were in a theatrical company: they signed orders, invented projects and scripts which, once approved, were realized within chapels and sometimes also in other places for a new different client.

The theatricality aspect of scenes was remarkable also because in the first birth period of these complexes, chapels were open to public and the visiting itinerary allowed to come up to the different characters. Therefore pilgrims could look at smiling expressions and grimaces, cloths’ details and filling, buttons’ drawing or the real hair waves; the truth of details contributed to underline the truth of religious message.

That period lasted very few, itineraries were changed and brought somehow far from scenes: once actors, pilgrims then became audience. Before there were wooden gratings, then wrought-iron ones, always set on transiting spaces both to safegueard works and to accomplish with didactic-religious intentions imposed by Council of Trent’s-prescriptions. Settings were organized in order to favour particolar viewpoint and, consequently, they always realized life-size statues (but these were completed only from the side visibile from visitors); further there were walls frescos and decorations which worked as backdrops, leading visitors’ eyes towards visual frame pre-arranged by “the setting director”.

The great mountain theatre then have became known: hundreds of chapels, inhabitated by statues and rising on Piedmont’s and Lombardy’s hills, still today, after five centuries, are goals of passionate faithfuls and still an occasion of artistic enjoyment.


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Excerpts from:
F. Fontana, R. Lodari, P. Sorrenti, Luoghi e vie di pellegrinaggio. I Sacri Monti del Piemonte e della Lombardia , 2004, published by Centro di Documentazione dei Sacri Monti, Calvari e Complessi devozionali europei.

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