The construction of the first Sacri Monti (Sacred Mountains) began in Europe between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. When Constantinople fell in the hands of the Ottomans (1453) the season of great pilgrimages to the Holy Land ended. Reaching Jerusalem had become much more difficult, expensive and dangerous than in the past and so the Church introduced the so-called "substitution practices": pilgrimages to sanctuaries or cities (Rome above all) that could keep alive the sense of the "peregrinatio" among the faithful and could evoke the Holy Places. In the second half of the fifteenth century, the Franciscan friar Bernardino Caimi from Milan was the first to put this idea into practice and started the construction of what would become the Sacred Mountain of Varallo to reproduce the most emblematic places of the Holy Land for the faithful.
In the following decades, the Sacred Mountains became places in which to offer the faithful a path of meditation and prayer: the basilica - usually placed at the top of a hill - becomes the point of arrival of a journey in stages marked by different chapels or stations dedicated to the life and the passion of Jesus, to the life of the Virgin Mary, to the mysteries of the Rosary, to the Trinity or to the life of a saint.
In 2003, UNESCO recognized the historical and cultural value of nine Sacred Mountains of northern Italy (Varallo, Crea, Orta, Varese, Oropa, Ossuccio, Ghiffa, Domodossola and Valperga), by registering them in the World Heritage List for “the successful integration between architecture and fine arts, in a landscape of remarkable beauty, made for religious reasons in a critical period of the history of the Catholic Church".
There are two Sacred Mountains that you can visit in Lombardy.
The Sacro Monte (Sacred Mountain) of Varese
"It seems Italians cannot look at a high place without wanting to put something on top, and few times they have done it more happily than at the Sacro Monte di Varese". With these words, at the end of the nineteenth century, the English writer Samuel Butler described the extraordinary view from Monte Orona (also called Monte di Velate), on whose slopes a two kilometre cobblestone road reaches the Sanctuary of the Sacred Mountain. Surrounded by beech, chestnut and hazel forests, the 14 chapels are dedicated to the Mysteries of the Rosary; they are divided into groups of five, separated by triumphal arches and by fountains for the refreshment of pilgrims.
The Sanctuary, that is the arrival point of the route, stands on the ruins of a Romanesque sanctuary built in the eleventh century, where pilgrims from Milan and the Canton of Ticino were already coming. The building was subsequently enlarged in 1472 and in the same period a group of nuns retired to a hermitage adjacent to the sanctuary, thus giving life to a monastery. It was precisely one of the nuns who conceived, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the idea of a path that connects the Varese plain to the Sanctuary. Thanks to the involvement of some noble Milanese families and the raising of funds among the faithful, the construction of the chapels started in 1604 and ended in 1623. The frescoes and the statues in painted terracotta that animate the scenes of the various Mysteries were completed in 1698.
The tourist or pilgrim reaching the end of the Via Sacra, after having touched the 14 chapels, arrives at the Sanctuary of Santa Maria, surrounded by a medieval village where it is possible to walk along the ancient covered streets, visit the Baroffio museum and the Pogliaghi House Museum (which includes precious Egyptian, Etruscan and Greek-Roman archaeological finds), to finally reach the Sanctuary and Monastery of the Ambrosian Romite nuns.
For more information, please visit: http://www.sacromontedivarese.it/
At this link you can find information on the accessibility of the Sacro Monte di Varese.
Sacro Monte della Beata Vergine del Soccorso – Ossuccio (Co)
Overlooking the western shore of Lake Como, the Sanctuary of the Beata Vergine del Soccorso, surrounded by woods and olive groves, offers a splendid view of the Lario lake and the Comacina island. It represents the point of arrival of the Sacred Route of the Sacred Mountain of the Vergine del Soccorso, which can be reached by walking a one kilometre cobblestone road (sometimes with challenging slopes) on which there are 14 chapels dedicated to the mysteries of the Rosary.
The central-plan chapels, built between 1635 and 1710, are in baroque style, embellished by 230 statues in stucco and terracotta, life size, made by several local artists; the dresses faithfully reproduce those of the population of the time. The church was built on an impervious ground where probably there was a place of worship: the works for the construction of the Sacred Mount of Ossuccio traditionally date back to 1623, when the monumental complex of Varallo, Orta, Varese and Domodossola were already existing or were under construction. The church preserves the statue of the Beata Vergine del Soccorso, a work probably dating back to the beginning of the fourteenth century and venerated as protector of the Diocese of Como.
For more information, please visit: http://santuariosoccorso.blogspot.com/
For information on accessibility, please click on this link.