Holy Mountain of Saint Julius of Orta
The Holy Mountain of Orta is of notable religious, artistic, and environmental importantce: it covers over thirteen hectares and, since 1980, has been deemed a “Special Nature Reserve”. Moreover, in 2003 it was included, with all the other sacred mountains, on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage Sites.
The mountain’s large complex is made up of 21 chapels located on a striking natural path at the summit of the Saint Nicholas Mountain (400 meters or 1/4 mile high), where the church of Saints Nicholas and Francesco stands together with the Franciscan Convent where the friar Brothers live to this day. Construction began on the cape in 1590 near to where the ancient church of Saint Nicholas, a place of worship that had existed during the Dark Ages, stood. The idea behind constructing a series of shrines dedicated to the recounting of sacred history on the mountain came from a similar setup on the Sacred Mountain of Varallo, built about a century earlier as a destination for the faithful pilgrims, including those from Cusio.
The original project included the construction of 36 shrines, each of which narrated an episode in the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, who died in 1226. In reality, however, only twenty shrines were completed, with the twenty-first left unfinished. These chapels housed frescoes and terra cotta sculptures as well as written descriptions of the main scenes. Thusly a notably modern Franciscan cycle emerged, with life-sized, three-dimensional depictions of traditional scenes; this was a foolproof way to facilitate more personal identification between the pilgram and the exemplary life of the saint from Assisi.
The strong will and financial contributions of the abbot Amico Canobio from Novara were fundamental to getting the project off the ground. He helped realize a group of three shrines (the last three) at his own expense, and these chapels were therefore named Canobiane. The construction continued thanks to the contributions of Carlo Bascapè, bishop of Novara, of other private benefactors, and of the Fabbriceria, the organization that collected the offerings from pilgrims who visited the Mountain.
The shrines overlook paths lined with trees and hedges to prevent the devoted from the distracting landscape; today this “isolated view” no longer exists – on the contrary, from the mountain you can enjoy one of Cusio’s most beautiful scenic views.
The primary planner of this grandiose construction project was the Capuchin priest Cleto from Castelletto Ticino, a character about whom we unfortunately know very little. Working closely with the bishop, Cleto built the first shrines, availing himself of collaboration with esteemed, talented artists such as the sculptor Cristoforo Prestinari; the painters Giovanni Battista and Giovanni Maura from Rovere, also called the Fiammenghini (Flaming/Flamboyant); Morazzone; and other artists who had worked on other Sacred Mountains. Many other notable personalities including Bionigi Bussola, the Enrico brothers, and Ernardo Falcone for the sculptures and the Nuvolone brothers, Antonio Busca, and the Legnanino for the frescoes would later come to work on parts of this large project. The shrines, built during the period of time between the end of the sixteenth century and the eighteenth century, represent different architectural and pictorial styles and tastes, at times overlapping, that range from the sobriety of the first Renaissance shrines to the Baroque a rococo style of those built later on, deliberately semi-hidden in the vegetation to create the typically Baroque “wonder” effect.
The long affair of building the complex concluded at the end of the eighteenth century with the construction of the never-finished final shrine, called “New Shrine”, from whose terrace ring you can enjoy an unusual landscape. The church of the Sacred Mountain, rebuilt at the same time as the first shrines, houses many invaluable seventeenth and eighteenth century paintings. These paintings were created by various different artists; we recommend Giulio Cesare Procaccino’s beautiful Nativity, which once hung in the first shrine.
The most interesting parts of this church, however, are the large wooden altarpieces that represent how, even in the Baroque era, the traditional Franciscan art distanced itself from that tied to other orders. No gold, valuable stucco, or polychrome covering: the wood was worked, turned, and inlaid with skill, with its splendid natural colors, varying according to the specific essence used, left in plain view. The fourteenth century wooden statue that sits on the main altar has been revered for centuries; it depicts a piety: the Virgin holding up the lifeless body of her son. We don’t have sufficient documentation on this work of art; we don’t know who created it or for whom it was created. Surely, however, the statue was created north of the Alps, possibly in Germany. The cherubs that surround and support the sculpture were added in the nineteenth century. The garish portico on the façade was added in the early twentieth century. From the opposite terrace you can enjoy a truly breathtaking landscape of the lake’s blue water and the Isola di San Giulio (Island of Saint Julius).
Open all year.