The Oropa Sanctuary is the most important and largest Sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin Mary to be found in the Alps. It is located in a unique, natural and unspoilt setting at 1200 mt. a.m.s.l, at only 20 minutes drive from the centre of Biella.
Historical lore states that the Sanctuary was founded in the 4th century AD by St. Eusebio, the first bishop of Vercelli. The first written documents that mention Oropa date back to the beginning of the 13th century and mention the first simple churches of St. Mary and St. Bartholomew. These served as important reference points for ‘viatores’ (travellers) who travelled back and forth to the nearby Aosta Valley.
The Sanctuary grew and has been developed through the years into a spectacular architectural ensemble of important monumental buildings. This led to a change in the use of Oropa from one of transit to a destination used by pilgrims brought here by their strong sense of devotion.
The complex is made up of three large courtyards built on three levels and was designed by the great Savoyard architects Arduzzi, Gallo, Beltramo, Juvarra, Guarini, Galletti and Bonora between the mid 17th and 18th centuries finishing with the Upper Basilica which was consecrated in 1960. The first courtyard, faced by restaurants, bars, and several shops for the visitors, is followed by the wide square containing the Ancient Basilica. It can be reached by the monumental staircase and the Royal Door.
The majestic buildings of Oropa have been edified in the course of the centuries starting from a core unit: the small Sacellum of the Black Virgin.
The Church of the Black Madonna
The Ancient Basilica, the spiritual heart of the Sanctuary, was erected in the 17th century, in the aftermath of the plague of 1599, to fulfill a vow made by the Municipality of Biella. When the church was completed in 1620 a solemn coronation was held, the first of a series that would enrich the history of the Sanctuary every hundred years. The façade, designed by the architect Francesco Conti, whose sober elegance owes much to the green-veined local stone, is embellished by the darker tinge of the doorway, displaying in the upper part the Sabaudian coat of arms of Duke Carlo Emanuele II, sustained by two stone angel. The inscription “O quam beatus, O Beata, quem viderint oculi tui" is carved on the architrave of the doorway. Since the first decade of the 17th century the inscription is the welcoming greeting received by the pilgrim crossing the threshold of the Basilica.
The Basilica, erected on the site of the ancient church of Santa Maria, holds the Eusebian Sacellum, a shrine which dates back to the 9th century. The cupola and the internal walls of the Sacellum display precious frescoes dating back to the 13th century, the work of an unknown artist known as the Master of Oropa. The frescoes, centered on the life of the Virgin and on those saints that were object of particular veneration of the ancient hermitage, are a precious testimony of sacred iconography. The Sacellum holds the statue of the Black Madonna, made of Pinus Cembra or Swiss pinewood, the work of a 13th century woodcarver native of Valle d'Aosta. The blue cape of the Virgin, the vest and the golden hair encircle the black-painted face, whose austere and yet gentle smile has welcomed the pilgrims over the centuries.
According to the tradition the statue was brought to Oropa in the 4th century A.D by Saint Eusebius, who was fleeing Palestine and the fury of the Aryan persecution. In order to grant the diffusion of the Marian cult Saint Eusebius is said to have hidden the statue amongst the rocks, on the site where the Chapel of Roc nowadays stands. The latter was erected in the first half of the 18th century by the inhabitants of Fontainemore, a village of Valle d'Aosta still connected to the Sanctuary by that ancient procession, which every five years ascends through a winding path the mountains that separate the two valleys. During the restoration works, conducted in the first months of 2005, decorations characterized by yellow ochre floral motifs on azure background, dating back to the 17th century, emerged on the vault of the church, unveiling the most recent treasure of a still richly mysterious past.
The Upper Basilica
Beyond the imposing staircase opening above the Piazzale Sacro the view expands to the Upper Basilica, an edifice of monumental proportions and yet in harmony with the encircling mountains, offering an interesting contrast with the intimate spiritual dimension of the Ancient Basilica. The necessity to erect a new church, due the growing number of pilgrims flowing to the Sanctuary, was felt as early as the 17th century, when a number of projects concerning the expansion were discussed by the authorities. At the end of the 19th century the project, elaborated a century before by the architect Ignazio Amedeo Galletti (1726 -1791), was approved. In an effort to accommodate the expansion of the Sanctuary to the north the Oropa torrent was deviated in order to provide the necessary terrain for construction. The first stone was laid in 1885 but the work, involving numerous and qualified professionals, proceeded with great difficulty during the two World Wars. The cupola, of eighty meters of height, was meant to be the crown of the imposing monument which was consecrated in 1960. The carvings on the three massive doors in bronze, preceded by a large pronaos, depict the history of the Sanctuary from the Eusebian origins to the erection of the New Church. A large octagonal space dominated by the cupola, supported by tall columns providing access to the six chapels dedicated to the life of the Virgin, welcomes the visitors inside the vast and imposing hall. The main altar, positioned at the centre of a smaller hall, is surmounted by an aerial ciborium, a modern piece of artwork by the Milanese artist Gio Ponti.
The Upper Basilica is a grandiose edifice whose erection was promoted by the latest generations of the residents of Biella, as well as by many other devotees of the ‘Vergine Bruna’. The names of the devotees who have contributed to the erection of the church are carved on the marble walls of the underground crypt of the suffrage. The latter displays a rare interesting collection of nativities coming from various countries around the world, a testimony of faith and cultural diversity crossing time and space, currently welcomed in the arms of the Black Madonna of Oropa.