The idea of the Sacred Mount is a Christian conception of the end of the 15th century, which, with the Counter-Reformation, spread from Italy into Europe and to the New World.
A Sacred Mount is a devotional complex arranged on the slope of a mountain with a series of chapels or monuments (aediculae) that contain representations with paintings or sculptures, of scenes of the Life of Christ or of Mary or of the Saints. Reproductions of the New Jerusalem, the Sacred Mounts offer pilgrims the possibility to visit Holy Places with the reproduction on a smaller scale of the places where the Passion of Christ took place. They are located on high ground, generally in a position secluded from the urban centres in a peaceful and natural environment; people generally climb the paths as a pilgrimage.
Often the ascents recall the Via Dolorosa, the way in Jerusalem that leads to the Calvary followed by Christ carrying the Cross.
This devotional complex usually is one of three main types: the Path of the Cross, the Calvary and the Sacred Mount. These categories can be combined in different ways uniting places and representations that vary from one place to another; this variability is the connotation of one devotional complex compared to another, that is emulated for the different devotion it provides. Substantially, the incentive is to make something similar but different: the emulation, adapting to the specific characteristics of the place, to the personalities of the sponsors and of the artists, takes on a particular connotation that distinguishes one place from all the others that serve the same purpose.
The concept of Calvary does not always mean just a simple figurative cross, joined, perhaps by two others to symbolise the martyrdom of Christ, in a relatively high position, with a more or less ornate base, that distinguishes it from the surrounding environment. A good example are the Breton Calvaries: they are often located in urban contexts inside the community, the symbols, like the entry threshold, the fountains, etc. and the signs contained in their enclosures, the enclose, make these devotional complexes a much more structured cultural reality, very different from the simple monuments of other sites.
So, inside the urban area, the Calvary rises, obviously and by their nature, on high ground, and they are proposed as distinctive elements of the piety of the community that erected them. Believers use them sometimes even on a daily basis and processions climb to them on religious festivities. As in Bonn, in Graz, in Györ, in Aigen, in Oberndorf, the Calvary is often a key landmark of the urban landscape, and inside, it represents the sacred organisation of the local worship. Like the Sacred Calvary Mount of Domodossola, or the Monte Dolorosa of Brissago, where Calvary worship is performed according to the customs of many places in Germany.
Or like the Polish Calvaries, characterised by a size that is unthinkable for Italian devotional complexes; take Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, with its seven kilometres of paths, its multipurpose chapels, that can be used for devotion of the “paths of Jesus”, and also for the “paths of Mary”. Or Kalwaria Wambierzycka, that has 79 places of worship that contain in special architectural structures, representations of the events of the Passion of Christ, the grief of Mary, the temptations in the desert, the heart of Jesus, Saint Wilgefortis and Saint Stephen.
And there are other Calvaries; the Austro-Hungarian tradition is rich with them. In their simpler architectural shapes, they re-propose the crucifixion of Christ, his burial, the flagellation, the Garden of Olives, etc. This is all inserted in an evocative complex, which, at different levels, uses environmental and architectural elements, with sculptures and paintings, structured in various ways. In the most complex and articulated cases, like in Eisenstadt at the Calvary Mount built between 1701 and 1707 by the Franciscan Felix Nierinck, the Passion of Christ is represented in no less than twenty-four stations.
The Christian devotional Complexes are cultural sites consisting of:
- The narration of a sacred story (episodes in the life of Christ, of Mary, of the Saints, etc);
- The interdependence of the constitutive elements (architecture, sculpture, painting);
- The location following a route in an open space.
The path to follow is pre-established, symbolic and devotional; it leads believers to visit the monumental elements of the complex, which, merging with the surrounding environment, form a cultural entity that cannot be separated from the scenic make-up of the single site.