Milan, 24 December 2020
As is our habit, my wife and I have been spending these dying days of 2020 hiking around the edges of Lake Como. We did the Green Way again recently (this is a walk which goes from Colonno to Griante).
And once again, as we passed through the village of Ossuccio, we noticed this sign on a wall.
It was advertising (if that’s the right word) some kind of pilgrims’ path which snaked its way up from the village to a church, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, located high above it.
The path was studded with 14 little chapels, which the pilgrim could stop at and pray – or the modern hiker like us could inspect.
My wife and I debated whether or not we should take the path. The last time we had passed through Ossuccio we had been running late. But this time, we were ahead of schedule, and anyway we needed to do a bit of climbing – the Green Way is quite flat. So we decided to make a little detour up the hill.
I had thought that we would be doing a Stations of the Cross – a common thing to find on hills and mountains in this part of the world. But no, the whole enterprise is actually dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and the fourteen chapels plus the church are built around the mysteries of the Rosary. I’m afraid I’m getting into a Catholic tradition which is quite foreign to anyone who has not been brought up a Catholic, but I have to explain these mysteries a little if readers are to understand the iconography of what I am about to describe.
If any of my readers have ever entered a Catholic church in the early evening, they may have encountered the following scene: a darkened church with a pool of light in the first few rows of pews, a handful of older women (and, rarely, a few men) sitting in the light, possibly a priest acting as MC, and a steady drone emanating from the group. They are reciting the Rosary (capital “r”), which is the recital of a couple of different prayers in a certain order. To help them recite the Rosary correctly, the little group in the church will be using a rosary (little “r”). This is a string of beads which looks like this.
The point of a rosary is to help its users recite the right number of prayers in the right order. The drone emanating from the group in the church is the result of them repeating the prayers over and over again, with the rosary beads slipping through their fingers as they keep count of the prayers.
This litany of prayers is built around the so-called four mysteries of the Virgin Mary: the joyful, luminous, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries. In turn, each mystery is based on five episodes in the life of the Virgin Mary and her son Jesus. As the name of the mysteries imply, these episodes are joyful, luminous, sorrowful, and glorious. As the picture above shows, a rosary normally consists of five groups of ten small beads separated by one bead. Readers with an arithmetical bent will no doubt have understood that one tour of the rosary through the fingers of that little droning group in the church covers the five episodes of a mystery, with one set of prayers being droned out for each episode (somehow, as they drone their way through the prayers, the members of the little group are meant to meditate on the episode in question). Which mystery the droners will be covering when you walk into that darkened church depends on which day of the week it is: Mondays or Saturdays, the joyful mystery; Tuesdays or Fridays, the sorrowful mystery; Wednesdays or Sundays, the glorious mystery; Thursdays, the luminous mystery (as readers can see, the whole Rosary programme is very well organized).
Coming back to the fourteen chapels and church on the hill behind Ossuccio, they are built around three of the four mysteries: the joyful, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries (the luminous mystery is not included, but simply because it didn’t exist when the chapels and church were built; it was only added by Pope John-Paul II in 2002). My arithmetically inclined readers will of course have figured out that fourteen chapels plus a church is 15, which equals the three times five episodes in the mysteries. And in fact it turns out that each chapel (plus the church) are dedicated to one of the episodes covered by the three mysteries.
“But what are these episodes?!” I can hear my readers cry. Well, for that it is best that we visit the chapels and the church. But before we set out on our visit, I just want to say that we are about to see mises-en-scène, pieces of theatre frozen in place by the use of life-sized painted terracotta statues: 230 in all, 163 of people, 52 of angels, and 15 of animals.
Let me start with an overview picture of the chapels and the church.
The small white structure up the stairs and behind the tree is one of the chapels. In the background on the hill we see the church, the end-point of the pilgrim path. Sharp-eyed readers can spy similar chapels on the hillside below the church – unfortunately, modern houses have also been built on the hillside, so the view is not as harmonious today as it must have been in the late 17th, early 18th centuries when the chapels were first built.
When pilgrims – or modern hikers – approach a chapel, they will see a very closed building: a blank wall, with a locked door and a couple of grated windows on either side of the door.
It is those grated windows which allow pilgrims – and hikers – to see what’s going on inside the chapels. Peering through them, they will behold a mise-en-scène of statues describing an episode of the mysteries. The grates on the windows are often of fine mesh. On the one hand, this is a good thing, in that it stops birds, rodents, and other pesky animals from entering the chapels and making a mess of the statues and everything else. On the other hand, this is a bad thing, in that it made it difficult for me to take good photos of the mises-en-scène with my i-Phone’s camera.
So I shall be relying heavily on photos taken by other photographers who were given permission to go inside the chapels and posted their photos online.
Now, finally, we can visit the individual chapels and the church!
We start with five chapels which are dedicated to the five episodes making up the joyous mystery. Thus, we have:
Chapel 1: the Annunciation, where an Angel announces to Mary that she has been chosen to be the mother of Jesus.
Chapel 2: the Visitation, where Mary visits her much older cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist, and where Elizabeth recognizes Mary as the mother of the long-awaited Messiah.
Chapel 3: the Nativity, where Jesus is born in a manger.
Chapel 4: the Presentation, where Mary and Joseph present the baby Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem.
Chapel 5: Finding Jesus in the Temple at age 12, discussing Mosaic Law with the elders.
This chapel has the amusing detail of having a young boy sitting in the foreground who seems to be laughing at all these wise old men, and a dog which is crossing the scene. Presumably the artist who created this chapel wanted to give pilgrims a bit of light relief. I also like a detail at the back of the scene, in the dialogue between the young Jesus and the elder next to him.
That elder is wearing a pince-nez, no doubt as much a symbol in the late 17th, early 18th Centuries of the bookish type as it is today (and on a darker note, let’s remember the Khmer Rouge’s decision to kill anyone who wore glasses, because they clearly had to be bourgeois intellectuals).
The next five chapels are dedicated to the episodes of the sorrowful mystery. So we have:
Chapel 6: the Agony in the garden of Gesthemane, where Jesus prays that he might be spared his impending death.
Chapel 7: the Scourging, where Jesus is whipped before his execution.
Chapel 8: the Crown of Thorns, where Jesus is mocked by being crowned “king” with a crown made of branches with long, sharp thorns.
Chapel 9: Jesus carries the Cross to the place of execution.
Chapel 10: the Crucifixion, where Jesus dies on the cross.
I’m sure the pilgrims’ attention would have rapidly shifted from the crucifixion in the background to the soldiers throwing dice for Jesus’s cloak in the foreground. The sculptor created some very interesting-looking characters there. It’s certainly where my attention went.
The final four chapels and the church are dedicated to the five episodes of the glorious mystery:
Chapel 11: the Resurrection, where Jesus rises from the dead.
The soldier sprawled on the ground in the foreground with his leg in the air is a nice touch, although the statue is in dire need of restoration.
By now, we are high enough to get a good view across the lake and of the mountains – snow-capped at this time of the year – behind it.
Chapel 12: the Ascension, where Jesus ascends into heaven.
Chapel 13: the Descent of the Holy Ghost on Mary and the Apostles.
As we toil our way up to the next chapel, another lovely view opens up across the lake.
Chapel 14: The Assumption of Mary into heaven after her death.
Finally, after having huffed and puffed our way up the sometimes very steep path, we reach the church.
A typically baroque church greets us when we enter – the chairs set at the required safety distances in these times of Covid-19.
At the far end, over the main altar, we have the representation of the last episode of the glorious mystery, the Crowning of Mary as queen of heaven and earth.
These little scenes we’ve witnessed as we’ve climbed up the hill are really wonderful pieces of theatre. In fact, that was their purpose, to teach a largely illiterate population the main stories from the New Testament through pictures: another example of the Poor Man’s Bible, which I commented on in a post long ago about San Gimignano in Tuscany.
Set-ups like this one in Ossuccio were very much promoted by San Carlo Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan (known affectionately as “el Nasùn” because of his very large nose).
He saw these as an important way of reaching out to the poor and downtrodden, who might otherwise be tempted by Protestantism, and as a way to talk to them about Christianity in a “language” which they understood. As a result, Ossuccio is one of a good number of so-called Sacred Mountains that dot the landscape of northern Italy; it bordered Protestant lands in Switzerland and was in danger of Protestant infection. The religious passions have died away but these masterpieces of baroque sculpture have remained. They have been declared a group UNESCO World Heritage site.
The funny thing is, this whole programme was tacked over a much earlier veneration of the Virgin Mary on the site of the church. The current church replaced an earlier church, which archaeological digs have shown in turn replaced an even earlier Roman temple to the goddess Ceres (Ossuccio was originally a Roman township by the name of Ausucium). She was the goddess of agriculture and by extension fertility. But since crop failures could have calamitous repercussions, she was also prayed to to avert catastrophes and was given thanks when catastrophes were averted. Somehow, in the shift to Christianity, this latter aspect of the cult of Ceres was transferred to the only “goddess” which Christians had, the Virgin Mary. It was to her that you prayed if something terrible happened to you, and if you survived you would often donate an ex-voto to her shrine as a memento of her presumed intercession. Since remotest time, then, the church high on the hill above Ossuccio has been a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary and it has continued to be a place where people have come to pray for her intercession in times of danger. As a result, there is a little chapel off the main nave of the church which is stuffed full of ex-voto. I love these ex-voto, which tell us, sometimes in touching detail, of terrible misfortunes averted. I include here just some of the ex-voto which lined the walls of that little chapel.
The earlier ones seem to focus on recovery from grave illnesses.
Later ones seem to focus more on run-ins with modern technologies of one sort or another – I suppose people were getting healthier while their environment was getting more dangerous.
This last one speaks to us in particular. I presume the poor man has fallen from some sort of cliff. The area is littered with old quarries, and the slopes can anyway often be very steep. As my wife and I hike above and below these old quarries and along some very steep slopes, we are uncomfortably aware of the steep drops to our sides. One foot wrong …. Oh Blessed Virgin, keep us safe! (hey, you never know, a little prayer might help.)