Coronation of the Virgin

The final mystery of the rosary at Varese is represented on the high altar inside the sanctuary of Santa Maria del Monte. The Coronation of the Virgin is the fifth joyful mystery and the fifteenth mystery overall. Unlike the other chapels, these sculptures are neither life-sized nor made of terracotta. The wooden figure of the Virgin and Child was carved by an unknown artist, either in the fourteenth or fifteenth century. Usually the sculpture is dressed in rich fabric robes and veils, so only the figures' heads and the infant's hands are visible. When these vestments were removed for cleaning in 1984, conservators discovered that the left arm that is visible through the child's sleeve is not original to the work. Another left arm hugs a book to his chest. Removing these robes also reveals a small figure being crushed under the Virgin's left foot. It may be an evil spirit, demon, dragon, or, one scholar suggests, a symbol of the Arian heretics that Mary helped Saint Ambrose defeat on this mountain in the fourth century. The sculpture was carved to show Mary seated on the throne of heaven, but the additional garments hide her seat and give the impression that she is standing instead. This devotional image is one of many Black Madonnas honored in northern Italy. Black Madonnas were believed to have been brought to Europe from the East and are often tied to Byzantine spiritual and artistic practices. Legend says that Madonne Nere at the Sacro Monti of Oropa and Crea, for example, were brought from the Holy Land by Saint Eusebius. Other scholars suggest that these figures developed out of pre-Christian deities and became the Virgin to preserve local spiritual practices. At Varese, it is not entirely clear whether the figure's skin was always dark or whether it became so with age. Local legend records that the sculpture was made by Saint Luke and brought to this site by Saint Ambrose. The existing altar was erected between 1660 and 1662 by Giuseppe Rusnati (1647 - c. 1713), or Rosnati, who was a student of Dionigi Bussola (1615 - 1687), the sculptor of Varese's Crucifixion Chapel (c. 1660 - 1668). It is made of approximately 150 tons of marble. Rusnati's work was commissioned by Count Giacomo Simonetta and his wife Anna (née Monti), whose brother had been the archbishop of Milan Cesare Monti (1593 - 1650). The previously existing altar, and the sanctuary itself, was funded by Galeazzo Maria Sforza, the Duke of Milan, after he visited the newly established convent in 1475. Construction began the following year. Lotti follows Daniele Pescarmona, who suggests that this statue of the Virgin was substituted by another from the late-fifteenth century until the mid-seventeenth century, because that image better complemented the Sforza altarpiece. When Rusnati's work was finished, the sculptures were switched; the older statue was returned to the sanctuary and its replacement placed in the monastery. / The Sacro Monte sopra Varese is built on Mount Olona, also called Mount Vellate, which is believed to be the site of Saint Ambrose's final victory over an army of Arian heretics in the year 389. A church dedicated to the Madonna del Monte was erected on the site in the 10th century and rebuilt by the duke of Milan, Galeazzo Maria Sforza, in the late 15th century. Two local women established an Augustinian convent there in 1474 and, little more than a century later, another of their number proposed that a Sacro Monte be built leading up to the sanctuary. There are fourteen chapels and three monumental arches illustrating the mysteries of the rosary, preceded by a church dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. The final mystery is represented by the cult statue on the high altar, which is attributed to Saint Luke. The chapels were designed by Giuseppe Bernascone, il Mancino (1565 - 1627), an architect from Varese who trained with Pellegrino Tibaldi (1527 - 1596), or Pellegrino de' Pellegrini, and constructed quickly between 1605 and 1699. They are significantly larger than the chapels at any other Sacro Monte.
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