To the left of the main buildings of the Sanctuary is the “Sacro Monte”, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a recently founded Piedmont Special Nature Reserve. In the 17th and 18th centuries donations received by various communities of the Biella area made it possible to build twelve chapels here. Life sized painted statues made of terracotta were placed inside the chapels and show scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary.
The first stones were laid in the first half of the 17th century, at a time when the whole Sanctuary complex was in a phase of maximum expansion. The D’Enrico brothers, the Galliaris and Pietro Giuseppe and Carlo Francesco Auregio, were among the great artists involved in the painting and sculpting of the Sacro Monte project. They helped to turn the architecture of this complex into a path of faith, which developed into a real sacred landscape. Its composition was based on popular theatre of the time and followed the model of medieval sacred theatre. The Sacro Monte is a large natural theatre where a grand spiritual experience is played out by architecture, sculpture and painting. Visit the website www.sacromonte-oropa.com
1. Chapel of the Immaculate Conception of Mary
The representation of the Mysteries of Mary begins with the chapel of the ‘Immacolata Concezione’, which was erected thanks to the economic support of a number of quarters of the city of Biella. The harmony and elegance of the chapel renders it one of the finest of the complex. The rather elaborate theme, the Immaculate Conception, involves a number of figures bearing a precise signification. A large twisting dragon, representing the original sin from which Mary is rendered immune after the sacrifice of Christ in the Passion, dominates the scene. Although we lack precise relevant sources the dramatic visual impact which the figure must have engendered on the first visitors is easily imaginable. Melchiorre D’Errico, brother to the more famous Giovanni, could be the author of the sculptural group. The dragon is placed among Mary’s parents, St. Joachim to the left and St. Anne to the right. The Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, descending on Mary as an infant kneeling on the terrestrial globe, is depicted on the cornice. Two large angels are respectively holding a cross and a column, surmounted by a cock, both symbols of the Passion. The five niches hold the statues of the prophet Isaac, of King David, King Solomon and two Sibyls.
2. Chapel of the Nativity of Mary
The written chronicles report that in 1659 the construction of the edifice, supported by the community of the ‘mandamento di Bioglio’, had already begun. The statues were realized by various artists. As the firsts, by F. Sala di Como and C.A. Serra di Tollegno, were already in unsuitable conditions in 1702, the authorities commissioned new ones. The current disposition is therefore subsequent, being designed by P.G. Auregio, who started to work on the new sculptures and the triumph of the angels in 1711. The painted architectural perspectives, realized by G. Galliari, were altered, together with the statues, by the restoration works of 1970. The scene, which includes three distinctive sculptural groups, depicts an episode of childbirth within domestic walls. St. Anne is portrayed at one end, bedridden and assisted by two women. The midwife, in the centre, surrounded by two large angels and another woman, is showing the baby, Mary, wrapped in swaddling clothes to her father, St. Joachim. Elements like the crib with the two cherubs, the bath, and the few women drying their cloths around the fire, enhance the domestic realism of the sculptural group. The majestic triumph of the angels, composed by over a hundred statues, dominates the scene.
3. Chapel of the Presentation of Mary at the Temple
The community of Mongrando was the commissioner of the edifice. The construction works, frequently interrupted, underwent several interventions. In 1659 the works had already begun, although the chapel was completed only at the beginning of the 18th century. The sculptural group was realized by Pietro Giuseppe Auregio and by his brother Carlo Francesco. It is the first work of the renowned artist at the Sacred Mount, and the only one to which his brother collaborated. The artists set to their task at the beginning of the 18th century. The composition of the scene is ingenious: beyond the balustrade stand the High Priest of the Temple and other prominent characters, portrayed with sombre looks and rich garments. The inferior part depicts St. Joachim, St. Anne, the Madonna mounting the stairs, a young mother holding her baby and other personages. The atmosphere seems humbler, the looks are innocent and the clothes unadorned. The contrast between the two parts of the group is resolved in the imaginary axis connecting the Madonna with the High Priest. The young virgin seems eagerly and yet somehow fearfully mounting the stairs towards the old stately priest, who welcomes her with a gesture. The statues are finely modeled and the depiction of the garments is remarkable. Rather unusually for such a context the triumph of the angels was not realized.
4. Chapel of Mary at the Temple
The community of Pralungo was the commissioner of the chapel, which was initiated in 1662. The works proceeded with various interruptions until 1673, started anew in 1711 and were finally and rapidly completed. The architecture is unusual, a cylinder sided by four lower, diametrically opposed apses. The statues were realized by P.G. Auregio and the painted background frescoes by G. Galliari; both works begun shortly after 1711. The scene depicts a group of maidens in the Temple of Jerusalem, reading or tending to domestic chores under the watch of their tutor. The garments of the 44 characters appear realistically smooth, the drapery finely detailed. The Madonna is portrayed in the apse in front of the entrance, seated to work and surrounded by graceful cherubs. The scene is remarkable for its vivacity and liveliness, further enhanced by the episode of the fight between two maidens in the right apse. Galliari, born to a family of skilful set designers, attempted to dilate the space of the apses by inserting architectural prospectives. Such decorations, although partially altered during the recent restoration works, are amongst the finest of the complex.
5. Chapel of the Wedding of Mary
The erection of the chapel, commissioned by the community of Chiavazza, Ronco and Zumaglia begun shortly after 1620 and ended approximately in 1640. The scene depicts the Marriage of the Virgin according to the Protoevangelium of James. The chosen spouse would be indicated by the flowering of one of the rods held by each suitor. The Madonna and St. Joseph are facing the High Priest, surrounded by their parents and other women. Joseph’s rivals are in the act of breaking their rod; the spouse is holding the flowering rod in the left hand and offering his right in marriage. The statues were realized by G. D’Errico in his artistic maturity. The characters, sculpted with remarkable skill, have been restored repeatedly in the course of the centuries. As early as the 18th century the Administration appointed P.G. Auregio to restore the damaged parts, but the skilful hand of the artist did not alter the original traits realized by D’Errico. The painted walls, probably realized in 1919, oddly reproduce some of the statues of the interior. The restoration works conducted in 1969 cannot unfortunately be considered satisfactory.
6. Chapel of the Annunciation
The community of Candelo, later joined by that of Cossato, was the commissioner of the chapel. The first written chronicle report that in 1659 the erection of the edifice had just begun; the plan and roofing of the current building were probably redesigned at the beginning of the 18th century. F. Sala di Como realized the first sculptural group, which probably did not meet with particular favour, as the following year B. Termine was employed to work on a new group. The latter, however, did not meet with a better luck, being substituted around 1714 due to damages. P.G. Auregio was the author of the statues currently on display. The scene, extremely simple, features the Madonna on her knees, on whom the Holy Spirit descends in the shape of a dove, accompanied by the Archangel Gabriel seating on a mound of clouds. The sculptural group is sustained by a light supporting structure made of large hollow terracotta vases. The Archangel is surrounded by angels and cherubs and the glory of the Lord descends from the upper reaches of the sky. The paintings on the walls, whose value must have been modest, portrayed the interior of the room, opening on an oriental landscape, probably substituted during the restoration works of 1969 by a local view.
7. Chapel of the Visitation
The erection of the chapel began later than other buildings but was completed earlier. The works finished in 1720, the year of the Second Coronation. The Sanctuary, originally responsible for the new construction, decided to delegate the duty to the community of Occhieppo Inferiore. The current edifice externally presents an octagonal ground plan. The scene portraits the encounter between the Virgin and her cousin Elisabeth. The sculptural group, constituted by four statues and the triumph of the angels, is unelaborate. The statues were realized by P.G. Auregio, who completed them in 1717. In the course of time the group underwent several interventions, some of them substantial, so much so that what is currently on display appears greatly altered in respect to the original. The disposition of the characters is artful: at the centre of the group is the joyous embrace of the women, under the discreet gaze of St. Joseph to the right, and the admired look of St. Zachary to the left, welcoming his guests on the threshold of the house. The internal decoration, designed by Auregio himself and realized in the years following the installment of the sculptural group, depicts the courtyard of an aristocratic house, probably in the oriental style. Its value appears, however, rather modest. The words which, according to the Gospel, were pronounced by Elisabeth at the sight of Mary appear on the scroll next to St. Zachary.
8. Chapel of the Nativity of Jesus
The erection of the building, initiated in the first half of the 17th century and ended in 1715, took almost a century. The commissioners of the chapel were the shepherds of the valley of Oropa, whose choice of subject was a Mystery directly connected with the pastoral world. Lacking the necessary funds they pleaded for help to the Duke Carlo Emanuele II, who financed part of the construction. The scene is an extraordinary life-size nativity, initiated by P.G. Auregio in 1716, one of the most ancient to be found in the region. The model of the Bethlehem cave was built using local material, such as stone slabs for the roof and local wood for the supporting structure. The statues placed within the cave represent the Baby, the Madonna, St. Joseph, the ox, the donkey and two angels. Jesus, portrayed with the features of an healthy local infant, is perhaps the most interesting figure of the group. Two shepherds kneeling are looking on the scene; the third, playing on a wind instrument, is seated in the right corner. The triumph of the angels includes approximately a hundred cherubs resting on terracotta clouds, suspended above the cave on the walls of the chapel. Every statue of the group is of remarkable value, confirming the talent of P.G. Auregio, also evident in the modeling of the animals, particularly the ox and the donkey. G. Galliari, the set designer who also worked at the chapel of the ‘Dimora’, intervened on the damaged painted background frescoes and on the statues during the restoration works of 1969.
9. Chapel of the Purification of Mary
The commissioner of the chapel were the communities of Vigliano and Valdengo. The works, initiated in 1659, ended in 1664. The sculptural group was realized by B. Termine between 1664 and 1666; his nephew, P.G. Auregio, restored it in 1725. The aesthetic value of the statues, whose features are unrefined and proportions inharmonious, is considered modest. The Madonna with Child, to the right, and the High Priest, to the left, appear to belong to different styles. A confrontation between the statues, such as that of the High Priest, that P.G. Auregio realized for the chapel of the ‘Presentazione’, and those, such as the Madonna with Child, he created for the chapel of the ‘Nascita di Gesù’, leads to think that Auregio made the substitution of the three central characters of the groups. The scene is completed according to the evangelical tradition, that is by St. Joseph, the prophetess Ann and the woman holding a basket containing two pigeons. Termine at his own discretion added other characters.
10. Chapel of the Wedding at Cana
The chapel was commissioned in the first half of the 17th century by the community of Lessona, whose choice for main decorative subject fell on one of the Mysteries of the Rosary connected to vineyard work. The sculptural group was mainly modeled by Giovanni D’Errico, with the help of other artists. The scene, a wedding banquet, miraculously conveys the sense of movement, stupor as well as the vivacity of the characters, giving the illusion almost of a snapshot. The disposition of the statues is equally artful. Jesus is positioned in the centre, the Virgin Mary to his left, and to the right the remarkable figure of the ‘old banquet guest’ turning to admire the prodigy. The other guests and relatives appear seated at the table, around which pageboys, servants and ‘credenzieri’ render the atmosphere vibrant and realistic. In the upper part of the scene a group of musicians, playing from a rostrum supported by three corbels shaped as caryatids, enliven the company. The interventions on the sculptural group were numerous. In 1723 facial features such as hair and beard were restored and in 1724 Auregio repainted several characters. The restoration works of 1969 significantly altered the figures by repainting them with extravagant colours, and by substituting the original decorations, such as the table and the flowers, by items made of plastic.
11. Chapel of the Assumption of Mary
The distance between this chapel and the preceding one along the processional route suggests the missing of several edifices, originally planned to be erected on the irregular path, which until this point is evident. The chapel was commissioned by the community of the ‘mandamento di Mosso’, whose protector is Maria Assunta. Sources attest that the construction works were already under way in 1659. The edifice is amongst the finest of the complex, presenting a circular ground plan encircled by a porch. The history of the sculptural group is a tormented one. In 1670 the triumph of the angels was commissioned to Aliprandi, a new name amongst the artist working at the Sacred Mount. After several vicissitudes Aliprandi’s work, realized in collaboration with Scoto, a fellow sculptor, was however not collocated in its appointed place. Other artists were subsequently involved in the project. Finally the triumph of the angels designed by Barberini, a sculptor active in Lombardy in the 17th century, was chosen. Barberini probably also received the commission for the statues, however he died leaving his work unfinished. Agostino Silva di Como positioned Barberini’s triumph within the completed chapel and realized the statues of the apostles, that were to be placed in the lower part of the group. As the commissioners were still not satisfied with the sculptural group the Auregio brothers, finally, made an intervention on the draperies and displaced the triumph to its original site, designed by Barberini. The scene depicts the assumption of the Virgin Mary and the apostles surrounding the empty sepulchre. The triumph of the cherubs encircles the Virgin: their features and gestures succeed in conveying the utter joy and a sense of uniformity of style, despite the sheer multitude of the characters portrayed.
12. Chapel of the Coronation of Mary
The chapel, commissioned by the Municipality of Biella, was the first of the complex whose erection began after 1621 and finished as early as 1631. It is dedicated to the triumph of the Virgin. The architecture reflects the solemnity of the celestial event: the chapel is the largest of the complex and contains the highest number of statues, as well as the finest. The scene depicts the Coronation of the Virgin, the Holy Trinity and the triumph of the saints and angels. The chapel itself is known as that of the ‘Paradise’. The number of the statues exceeds 150, including angels, cherubs, saints, the Madonna, the Holy Trinity, Adam and Eve. Giovanni D’Errico and Giacomo Ferrero applied their finest skills to model the group since 1633. The result is the finest example of the complex, the only one not to undergo the controversial restoration works of 1969-1970. In the past, however, one or several layers of colour were added to the magnificent original polychrome, dating back to the 17th century, which we can partially appreciate thanks to the most recent restoration. The scene is grandiose, the characters seemingly caught with enraptured eyes and outstretched arms, in the momentous contemplation of the Coronation of the Virgin. The angular features, the long hair and beard are unmistakable traits of the art of G. D’Errico. The pronounced verticality of the sculptural group merges with the surrounding architecture to form a kind of stage, surely one of the greatest ever realized of the kind.