Today was our first tour with the group we will be traveling with for 2 weeks. We were excited yesterday when we learned we do not have to wear badges since our group is so small (16) and therefore we will not look like tourists (guide’s words). Today we found out we have to wear orange boxes around our necks so we can hear the tour guide when we go places. Oh well, we guess “will not look like tourists” was lost in translation.
We took a small bus ride from Stresa to Orta San Giulio which is located on Lake Orta. The city is named after St. Julius, the patron saint of the building trade who built his 100th church on a small island (8th picture) near the city. Our first stop was Sacro Monte di Orta which is made up of twenty chapels that have been decorated with frescos and life-size terracotta statues that tell the story of St. Francis of Assisi’s life. Each chapel focuses on an episode taken from the saint’s biography. It was developed from 1591 to 1790 and is still a site of pilgrimage and worship. The first seven pictures are from here. When this site was started only 1% of the people were literate, so the mosaics and statues helped explain the life of St. Francis. The pilgrims were to follow the chapels in order, so to ensure this happened, there is a hand on each chapel that points the direction to the next chapel. The 5th and 6th pictures show the chapel that depicts the canonization of St. Francis. The terra cotta statues in here are amazing and the chapel is beautiful. The 3rd picture shows St. Francis’ triumph over temptation. He was from a rich family and spent his time and money on frivolous things and felt his life was not going the right direction. He prayed for direction and as a result of his contemplative prayer, he publicly denounced his wealth (including stripping naked) and entered into his spiritual life.
Next we got a tour of the town and walked down a street with buildings that have been preserved since the 11th century. We took a boat ride out to the island to see the Basilica of St. Julius. It was built on the remains of the 9th century church built by St. Julius. The frescoes covering the walls were painted between the 14th and the 19th centuries, and are almost all images of saints. The most valuable work of art is the medieval pulpit made of black Oira marble (14th picture). The carvings on the pulpit, which dates from the early 12th century, have a symbolic meaning linked to the announcement of the Word of God and the struggle between Good and Evil. The next to the last picture is St. Julius. There is also a Benedictine convent on the island that houses 75 nuns.