A reflection on the signs of the sacred on our mountains

SINCE ANTIQUITY, mountains have been considered sacred places, symbols of transcendence and the search for the supernatural. After a series of considerations on the subject, here is the focus on the sacred signs present on our mountains and on the summit crosses placed on the reliefs

The cross on the Girella (Mountain of Flowers, photo A. Palermi)

Of Gabriel Vecchioni

We have seen, in previous articles, that the Montagna dei Fiori (like other mountains of nearby Abruzzo) has been, for centuries, a place of spiritual research, where hermits and monks have developed their ascetic path. Signs of this search for the supernatural are the remains of hermitages and sacred places that still dot the relief, as well as several toponyms. This article will explore the themes that have led so many characters to live a life of deprivation, for the salvation of themselves and the world, leaving a memory of their presence in a difficult environmental context.

In the period image (1902), group photo at the foot of the base of the trellis of the cross of the Vettore who was shot down by the winds (photo from Vita Picena, March 2022)

THE HOLYNESS OF THE MOUNTAIN

When it comes to seekers of God, the mountain is thought of as a place of unexpected encounters: it is here that the person most easily finds isolation and silence for his research; the mountain has been considered, since ancient times, a symbol of transcendence, a place of transition between the earthly world and the unknowable. Sergio Ribichini, ne The Cosmic Mountain (1992), wrote that «The sacredness of the mountain also finds justification in the conception of a cosmos organized in ascending and communicating levels (heaven, earth, underworld) which considers high places as the closest places to contact with the superhuman».

The symbolic “image” of the mountain as meeting place of heaven and earth (almost a hierogamy) is found in all religions and, in regions where there were none, artificial reliefs were built (such as the Mesopotamian ziggurats or the pyramids).

Enzo Bianchi, founder and ex-prior of the monastic community of Bose-Biella, clarifies the concept in a few lines. In Sacred mountain (2010) in fact writes that «In every age and in all religious and spiritual traditions, the “mountain” – regardless of its actual height – has constituted a symbolic reference to the dimension of the sacred. And it could not be otherwise, if one considers that the mountainous relief connects the two sacred elements par excellence physically and visually: the earth – the great mother, the womb of life and of all – and the sky, once inhabited by the stars which communicates to the human being the perception of transcendence and immortality».

The sacralization of a place dedicated (belonging) to the divinity takes place with the separation from daily use: with the attribution of symbolic values, it is subtracted from the profane dimension. The consolidation of the relationship with the sacred is then accomplished with the rite which attributes religious spaces, symbolically transforming them into cosmic values. In the sacred space there is the relationship with the superhuman: the sacralization of a place leads to its frequentation by the faithful, to pilgrimages and to the search for the miraculous (in the ancient sanctuaries of Asclepius as in the more recent grotto of Lourdes: pilgrimages were not born with Christianity but were also carried out by pagans ).

The statue of Christ the Redeemer on the “urban” relief of the Sacred Heart (photo G. Vecchioni)

THE SIGNS OF THE SACRED

The peaks of the mountains, due to their very height, the difficulty of the “conquest” (metaphor of the difficult path of research) and the aura of mystery that surrounds them, have assumed, since ancient times, the peculiarity of being the seat itself of divinity or the “way” to get there. Already the pagan Greeks placed the abode of Zeus and the other deities on Mount Olympus. The Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) develop the theme of the ascent and define the mountain as a place of encounter with God: Moses receives the Tablets of the Law on the Mount of Revelation (Sinai); in Christianity, the hill of Calvary sees the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and on the top of Mount Tabor the Christological mystery of the Transfiguration takes place; Muslims perform rites of purification on a high ground near Mecca, the Mount of Mercy.

A few years ago, Edoardo Micati authored numerous works on the Abruzzo mountains, among which The mountain and the sacred, wrote that «the mountain is not sacred in its entirety but in every single natural aspect: from the cave to the stream, from the wood to the cliffs, every corner can be the seat of the sacred. The devotee does not limit himself to considering the sanctuary sacred but is led to widen the sacred area by interpreting some aspects of the surrounding nature as signs of divinity”.

The intimate association of the mountain with the sacred has led to the building of chapels or the placing of distinctive signs (crosses, statues, tombstones, altars…) on the tops of the mountains and beyond: there are therefore caves sanctified by the presence of hermits and transformed into sacred places with the erection of altars, rocks witnessing prodigies, toponyms dedicated to divinities or derived from monastic presences, crosses and religious aedicules.

The author inside one of Salinello’s ascetèri (photo G. Vecchioni)

MONACHISM AND THE HERMITICAL PHENOMENON

Monasticism is a phenomenon that sees individuals distance themselves from society, renouncing earthly interests, to realize the norms of faith in the fullest way, in solitary life or in community.

Since the times of St. Benedict of Norcia (5th century), the “founder” of western monasticism, the choice of places in which to establish anchorite settlements has been fundamental. In addition to the suggestion of certain sites, it is necessary to take into account the symbolic values ​​of places such as the desert, the forest, the cave… The hermit was looking for deserted – uninhabited places – to be able to meditate and pray without being disturbed.

Even if isolated, after the disintegration of the Roman Empire the monasteries became defenses of civilization, fundamental points of reference for civil society; the monks were the initiators of medieval civilization: for this reason San Benedetto da Norcia was named patron saint of Europe.

In the Middle Ages, the Ascoli area was invested, like others in central Italy, by forms of mysticism and spontaneous religiosity, which lasted over time and of which traces are still present: in addition to the hermitic phenomenon of the Montagna dei Fiori, on the Monte dell’Ascensione preached Meco del Sacco, on the Sibillini Mountains and in the Arquatano, the Clareni (they were the little brothers de pauperae vitaefollowers of Angelo Clareno da Cingoli).

The Montagna dei Fiori, due to the harshness and isolation of its valleys, the presence of cavities “hidden” by the woods, was, in the early Middle Ages, the scene of an intense hermit movement, a phenomenon of oriental origin, often connected to forms of exaggerated mysticism. To the hermitages of the Montagna dei Fiori, some of which with structures similar to the Magellan hermitages (the Majella was defined by Francesco Petrarca Domus Dei – the House of God – precisely because of the presence of so many anchorites) two articles have been dedicated, to which reference is made (read here and read here).

Right: the first snow covers the cross of Vettore, abandoned on the ground (explanation in the text, photo Ugo Pomponi). Left: in 2018

THE PEAK CROSSES

At this point, an insight into the “summit crosses”; religious symbols clearly visible from anyone who reaches the top of one of our mountains, the crosses are placed on the tip (or near) of different reliefs. «The summit is sacred, a natural temple. It is the limit where the earth touches the sky. Each peak is exactly the center of the world: the tip of the compass for the circle of the horizon (F. Boer, 2021)».

Placing sacred images or symbols on peaks or near places of passage is an ancient practice, also mentioned in the Bible, where the custom of placing pagan idols is criticized. The pass or summit crosses begin to appear in the sec. XII and, over time, they become more and more conspicuous, a fact that has recently led to debates and controversies. Annibale Salsa, anthropologist e Past President of the national CAI, analyzed the situation for the alpine environment; these are valid considerations, however, also for our Apennine localities: «… the crosses scattered in the cultivated mid-mountains are an integral part of the cultural landscape up to the present day. Conversely, the crosses on the peaks are the result of the urban frequentation of the mountains that began with the affirmation of tourism. Following this phenomenon, even the valley communities, on the initiative of parish priests and popular religious associations (fraternities), will start the practice of sanctifying the peaks using the material sign par excellence of faith, the summit cross”.

On the mountains around Ascoli there are several “summit crosses” which are often damaged by wind and snow and need to be restored or replaced: there are some on the Montagna dei Fiori, on the Ascensione, on the Vettore. In reality, the cross is no longer on the Vettore after the 2016 earthquake: in its place, the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology has set up a seismic detection system.

The Ascension cross was erected in the same period as the others but was not part of the plan for the sacralisation of the reliefs (explanation in the text, photo A. Palermi)

THE VECTOR CROSS

The interesting story of the iron cross of Carrier was told by Franco Laganà, Past President of the Ascoli section of the CAI, in an article on Picene life (March 2022).

On the occasion of the Jubilee of 1900, Pope Leo XIII (the pontiff of the encyclical Rerum novarum) invited to place on the top of twenty Italian mountains, to celebrate the 20 centuries of the birth of the Redeemer, as many metal crosses or votive monuments, created thanks to donations from the faithful. For “our” area (identified on the attached map with the number IX) the top of the Vettore was chosen, the highest mountain in the Marche region.

An emblematic image of the mountain where the sacred and the profane coexist (photo A. Palermi)

Laganà writes that «Given their location at high altitude, many of them fell into ruin due to lightning and gusts of wind. Some, however, after 120 years, are still standing to remind us of the event […] Among the fallen monuments is the Croce del Vettore.

The “Homage to the Divine Redeemer” on the Sibillini was created in September 1902. The building, 19 meters high and weighing 800 kilograms, stood on a 5 m high base (a chapel) but… «A few days had passed and, due to strong winds, on October 12, the lattice of the cross fell to the ground in one piece».

Rebuilt a few years later, it had no better luck; the last one, modern and much lower, was also twisted and uprooted by the strong winds for which the Sibillini are famous.

The entrance to the cave-hermitage of the Blessed Corrado overlooks the Cross carved into the living rock (photo G. Vecchioni)

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A reflection on the signs of the sacred on our mountains