The Italian Sacri Monti and their Sculptures as a Spiritual Boundary during the Counter-Reformation

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Forte, Kennis
Sacri Monti , Counter-Reformation , Religious Sculpture , State of Milan , Duchy of Savoy , Goiter , Holy Mountains , Early Modern Italy , Spiritual Geography
The Sacri Monti in northern Italy have been understood as a group since the late sixteenth century, when religious leaders across Lombardy and Piedmont began building new pilgrimage sites based on the example at Varallo (est. 1491). It is evident from the sites’ shared stational format and emphasis on life-sized sculptures that they are variations of a distinct type, but the way that this group developed and changed over time has yet to be clearly defined. Modern scholars have often described the Sacri Monti as a “spiritual boundary” or “defensive system” on the frontlines of the Counter-Reformation. This dissertation argues that their role as spiritual defenses between Catholic and Protestant territories is one of the elements that distinguishes these sites. Since relics and images were a significant focal point for religious conflict during the early modern period, the Sacri Monti’s fundamental reliance on sculpted figures is presented as an indication of confessional identity as well as the primary means of communicating with the viewer. This study proposes that the physical locations of these “Holy Mountains,” their placement within the local landscape and connection to particular communities, was a critical component of their collective function as a spiritual boundary. It examines where the sites were planted in relation to important trade routes, preexisting centers of religious and political power, and the regions most vulnerable to spiritual attack to demonstrate how each Sacro Monte responded to the historical context and present circumstance of their own unique environment. The profound spiritual experiences pilgrims had at these sites reinforced local traditions, faith practices, and religious institutions since visitors from nearby communities could return more easily and often. The sculptures themselves embodied Catholic beliefs by emphasizing doctrines and practices that Protestant groups rejected, such as the spiritual authority of the Virgin Mary, saints, holy relics, and the use of religious images. Initially, each group of narrative scenes was unique. Their diverse subjects and site-specific series rooted the Sacri Monti in their local environment and reinforced local devotion by memorializing people and places that had had an enduring impact on the practice of faith in Milan.
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