Immaculate Conception of the Virgin

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Date
Authors
Giovanni d'Enrico or Melchiorre d'Enrico, attr. to
Keyword
Virgin Mary , Conception , Immaculate , St. Anne , St. Joachim , Dragon
Abstract
This chapel seems to have been one of the first constructed at Oropa. It was built in the first half of the seventeenth century, but the exact dates remain unknown. Francesco Conti (dates unknown) is believed to have designed this and a number of other chapels when he was at Oropa working on the sanctuary's new façade and lodging for pilgrims (c. 1617 - 1640). The chapel was funded by three districts within the nearby city of Biella and another local community called Ghiara di Biella. The sculptures are usually attributed to Giovanni d'Enrico (c. 1560 - 1644) or his brother Melchiorre d'Enrico (1570/5 - c. 1657), who also decorated a number of chapels at the Sacro Monte of Varallo in the first two decades of the seventeenth century. Melchiorre is better known as a painter, but his relative inexperience as a sculptor may help explain the doughy features of some of the figures here. The original appearance of the figures also seems to have been altered significantly by layers of thick overpaint applied in various efforts to restore the chapel, such as the intervention of 1969 - 70. Scholars have not yet identified any primary documents to clarify any of the details related to authorship. The painters active here remain completely unknown, apart from Serafino Novelli (dates unknown) who repainted the interior between 1861 and 1875. The scene inside represents Mary's Immaculate Conception. As in the Chapel of the Annunciation at Varallo (c. 1510), the scene takes place in an abstract, architectural, setting with figures of prophets and sibyls lining the walls. Mary's parents, Saints Anne and Joachim, kneel on the floor and look up towards figures of the Holy Trinità. They are separated by a large dragon, which emphasizes the purity of Mary's conception by creating distance between her parents. Early modern paintings of Mary Immaculate often show the Virgin stepping on the head of a snake, but large dragons rarely feature in narrative images of conception as it does at Oropa. This pose is a reference to Genesis 3:15 and establishes a visual parallel between Eve, who brought sin into the world, and Mary, who gave birth to its salvation. Revelation 12 also describes a war between "The Woman and the Dragon," this woman usually believed to be an allegory for Mary or the Christian Church. In this chapel Mary is shown as a small adult, suspended below the three persons of the trinity and kneeling above a moon (another reference to Revelation 12). Some proponents of the Immaculate Conception argued that Mary was miraculously implanted in her mother's womb fully formed rather than being conceived by sexual intercourse, which was understood to be inherently sinful. The figure of Mary has been damaged and its head is no longer attached. / The Sacro Monte at Oropa is part of a larger devotional complex dedicated to an image of the Black Madonna that has been venerated on this site since 1295. This sculpture is believed to be one of three dark-skinned and miraculous images of the Virgin Mary that Saint Eusebius brought back from the Holy Land in the Fourth Century. The other two figures are located in the Sanctuary at Crea, another Sacro Monte, and the Cathedral of Cagliari in Sardinia, where Eusebius was born. Black Madonnas were common throughout western Europe during the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period. Modern Art Historians generally agree that the images darkened over time due to the soot released by nearby candles. Many of the sculptures have been repainted with light skin in recent years, including the examples at Crea and Varese. Unlike any of the other Sacri Monti Oropa was cared for by secular clergy throughout its entire history. The plans for a Sacro Monte to accompany the sanctuary date to 1620, the year that the new church building was finished, the statue of the Virgin was ceremonially crowned for the first time, and Duke Charles Emanuel I of Savoy declared himself the official protector of Oropa. The house of Savoy continued to fund and visit the elaborate sanctuary complex until the early twentieth century, even as they served as the Kings of Italy. The Sacro Monte, however, was built by local citizens, initiatives, and parishes. Only twelve of the twenty-eight chapels that were planned to illustrate the life of the Virgin Mary were ever completed. Primary documents detailing the Sacro Monte's construction are somewhat scarce compared to the records available at the other sites.
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