Presentation at the Temple (or The Circumcision)

These carved wooden figures sit on the altar in the left nave of the sanctuary at Santa Maria del Monte. Neither the altar nor its sculptures are mentioned in the record of a pastoral visit ordered by Carlo Borromeo in 1578, which called for the construction of an altar in the left nave to mirror the existing structure in the right nave of the sanctuary. By the time church authorities returned for the next inspection in 1581 the altar, which is attributed to Pellegrino Tibaldi (1527 - 1596), had been completed. The sculptures are smaller than life-size and may have been added some time later. A document in the Archivio di Stato di Milano records that the figures in the Presentation were covered, or recovered, with gesso by Andrea Prestinari in 1596, and presumably painted and gilded shortly thereafter. Andrea (dates unknown) seems to have been a younger relative of Cristoforo Prestinari (1573 - 1623), who made sculptures for Chapel One and Chapel Three at Varese and also decorated many chapels at the Sacro Monte of Orta. Some experts suggest that Cristoforo also carved these figures, although most of his surviving work is made of terracotta rather than wood. Conservation efforts in 1982 revealed the existence of two paint layers that are composed of similar materials and difficult to separate, which suggests that one was applied shortly after the other. It is possible that Andrea Prestinari's figures were repainted soon after he finished them, or that he himself had repainted a group that had been carved by his older relative. The intervention of 1982 also revealed that the Virgin Mary's hands had been repositioned, so that the statue of the infant Christ could be placed in her arms. This change left the remaining figures staring at an empty altar, so conservators returned the figure's hands to their original position. In 1983 Gianluigi Bennati (1929 -2011) carved a new pair of doves to replace a lost set that was carried by the woman with the basket at far right. The small boy in front of her, carrying a plate and pitcher, was stolen during the night of May 19, 1983 along with another figure from the Adoration group. Mario Rudelli (1938 - present) made the existing copy from a photograph. / 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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