Turin was very warm but covered in clouds yesterday so I was afraid of an inclement weather on the following day, when together with my travel companion and friend, Gosia, we were going to climb up the Alpes. Our destination was the famous sanctuary of Sacra di San Michele; its impressive silhouette has perched on Mount Pirchiriano, which is jutting out at almost 1000 meters (exactly 936m) above sea level in Italian region of Piedmont, in the Alpes.
The Egyptian Museum and the Shroud of Turin
Piedmont, or ‘Piemonte’ in Italian, literally means the “land at the foot of the mountains”. It is located in the north-western part of Italy, bordered to the north by Valle d’Aosta and Switzerland, to the east by Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna, to the south by Liguria and to the west by France. This beautiful land offers a lot of various attractions and breathtaking views, from beautiful alpine lakes and mountain landscapes to charming monuments and towns with vineyards. The region is also famous for delicious food, offering local cheese, truffles, and chocolate, not to mention delightful Piedmont wine and beer!
One evening, we went for a famous Italian dessert, which is undoubtedly tiramisu, and another time, we enjoyed by sharing a good portion of bagna cauda, which is a real speciality in Province of Piedmont: melted cheese, with olive oil and butter, flavoured with fresh anchovy and garlic, and all of that served in a hollowed-out bread, and with various snacks for dipping. Actually, Autumn and Winter seasons are just perfect moments for tasting fondue as it warms you up, and we were just in time for tasting it, visiting the region at the end of October.
Piedmont’s capital is Turin – the second largest cultural and economic centre in northern Italy, which can boast one of the greatest collections of ancient Egyptian artifacts, preserved by the Egyptian Museum (see: Acrobatic Somersault of the Egyptian Dancer from Turin), and the holiest relic of Christianity, which is the Holy Shroud (Santa Sindone), also known as the Shroud of Turin, because t is well-kept-up at the seat of the Archbishop of Turin, namely, inside the Cattedrale di San Giovanni Battista. Although it is not possible to see it but on special occasions, the faithful always have an opportunity to approach the chapel, where it is preserved.
Along the Demonic Rift, on the Fourth Stop on Saint Michael’s Sword
The architectural symbol of Piedmont is, however, Sacra di San Michele, which is also called Saint Michael’s Abbey, located above the municipalities of Sant’Ambrogio di Torino and Chiusa di San Michele. Either you follow ‘Saint Michael’s Sword’ from north southwards, as we do, or from the south northwards, that would be the fourth, out of seven stops on the pilgrimage way dedicated to the Archangel Michael. The complex lies also on the route of ‘Via Francigena’, an ancient pilgrim path from Rome to Canterbury, and while it is followed southwards, it is called Via Romea. The fact that Sacra di San Michele is the fourth stop on the pilgrimage path, either way it is taken, it is so half-way of the whole Line. Consequently, Sacra di San Michele is also located just in the middle of the ‘Via Michaelica’, namely the section of Saint Michael’s pilgrimage path between the two ancient and most significant monastic sites of Saint Michael, namely Mont Saint Michel in Normandy, in northern France, and Santuario di San Michele Arcangelo on Monte Gargano, in southern Italy. Precisely, there are 1000 kilometres from each of those sanctuaries to this half-way pilgrimage stop, which the Mont Pirchiriano used to be in the past, before it actually grew in significance, as an abbey and a strategic point on the way, which is believed to have originally been traced by the Archangel himself, with his sword carried against demons.
A legend goes that a furious battle in heaven opened a long rift, stretching from Mont Saint Michel to Monte Gargano, by which some of the fallen angels were devoured before it closed back, creating the original way of the triumphant Archangel. Consequently, although the rift is not visible today, its presence is still marked by ‘Via Michaelica’. From the Middle Ages, the route was followed by pilgrims and today, by both, pilgrims and tourists, looking for an authentic experience of feeling the mysterious past.
Welcomed by the Archangel at the Foot of His Abbey
Saint Michael’s Abbey is located nearly 30 kilometres in a direct line, north-west of Turin. It takes less than an hour to reach the place by car but there are also good train connections from Turin to nearby towns, such as Saint’ Ambrogio di Torino, Avigliana or Chiusa di San Michele, from where you can either take a pilgrimage trail or a taxi to drop you just at the foot of the Abbey. We decided to call a taxi in the morning to get to the Sanctuario from Turin, and come back by train from Saint’ Ambrogio. It was dictated by a need to arrive on Mount Pirchiriano just before it opens to avoid larger groups of people filling in the space of the complex. Moreover, we were not in a good physical shape to do trekking up from Sant’Ambrogio, which is quite steep and difficult to follow. Our taxi stopped in the park in the Piazzale Croce Nera, which is 500 metres from the Abbey. Despite my worries, the weather on our day of meeting with the Archangel turned out to be exceptionally good; a lot of sunshine with a light breeze from the Valley of Susa made our walking tour an agreeable experience. The road led us through a shadow of trees, between which an impressive corpus kept emerging with reddish and blueish colours between their branches. Just at the foot of its massive entrance, we were warmly welcomed by a modern statue of the Archangel with his sword embedded in the rocky foundation of the abbey.
Saint Giovanni in the Val of Susa
The Pirchiriano Mount’s name is quite ancient and means ‘pigs’, as much as the nearby Caprasio stands for ‘goats’, and Musiné for ‘donkeys’, which may be related to ancient beliefs of the Celts who had lived in the region till the mid of the first century AD.
Some monumental remains on the Mount witness to a story that the Pirchiriano had already been a military stronghold built by the Romans, who venerated there mostly unidentified Alpine deities. Longboards, who occupied the site between the sixth and the end of the seventh centuries, were successively replaced by the Carolingians, who left the Pirchiriano by the end of the ninth century, giving their way to the Saracens. Finally, the Pirchiriano Mount was entrusted to the Bishop of Torino, and by the end of the tenth century, first hermits arrived in the region and they mostly inhabited the Valley of Susa, in the north of the Pirchiriano. They mainly shared their desire for lives in isolation, entirely devoted to God by anchoritism of the Irish monks who had sought out a deserted place in the wilderness to fulfil their mission. Among hermits coming to the Valley of Susa, there was a monk, called Giovanni Vincenzo, who was one of Saint Romuald’s (951-1027) followers and students. The latter was a wandering reformer of Italian monasticism and hermitages, and responsible for the so-called ‘Renaissance of eremitical asceticism’ in Italy. In his mission, he was stimulated by the form of monasticism parallel to the original eremitism once founded in Egypt, which was then transplanted to Hiberno-Scotland (modern-day Ireland and Scotland). From there, such monastic ideas may have spreaded southwards, together with Irish monastic foundations in Europe.
Giovanni Vincenzo lived in his Celle on the Mount Caprasio. According to his hagiography, Giovanni, later canonized as a saint, was born in Besate around the year 955, and he was around 45 years old when he died. The same records testify that he was appointed the fifty-seventh archbishop of Ravenna, under Pope John XIV, in the year 983, with the name of John X. After the accounts, he held the archdiocese between 983 and 998 over the decades, in which the empire was governed by the successive emperors of Otto dynasty. In this period, as evidenced by the history of Ravenna, the Kingdom of Italy was united with that of Germany within the Holy Roman Empire, and Otto, one of the main Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, set Ravenna as its capital. In 998, Giovanni Vincenzo retired as a hermit on Monte Caprasio in Val di Susa in the natural caves near the town of Celle, where he died around 1000 AD.
On 12 January 1150 his body was transferred to the parish church of Sant’Ambrogio in Turin, currently the church of San Giovanni Vincenzo, which we also had an opportunity to visit on the way back from the Sacra di San Michele. San Giovanni has become the patron saint of the community of Sant’ Ambrogio di Torino. However, some scholars claim there were actually two hermits called Giovanni, whose hagiographies had once merged into one story. They suggest that Giovanni who was actually involved in the legend of Saint Michael had never been the archbishop but a later need for his ennoblement in the eyes of the faithful made him be identified with the apostolic head of Ravenna. Anyway, we may not be allowed to know what was the true story of the saint.
Saint and the Archangel
But what did Saint Giovanni have to do with the Archangel? And what did trigger the process of building the monastery of Saint Michael on the Mount Pirchiriano?
The cult of the Archangel itself had developed within the Judeo-Christian tradition and was brought to life in the East, in places similar in landscape to the sites of sanctuaries along the Archangel’s Axis, namely in isolation and in elevated places. The worship of Saint Michael may have migrated to Italy in the fifth century, as his first recorded apparitions happened in around 450 AD. on Monte Gargano. It is possible that Saint Michael was also worshiped on the Pirchiriano by Longboards, between the sixth and seventh centuries, so long before there was the very first church built in his devotion. The origins of the Abbey are itself shrouded in mystery, and the only source of information on its beginnings is given by two legends, later described in the chronicle of the Monastery. They are both beautifully illustrated in the “Fresco of the Legend”, inside the church of the Sanctuary, which explains the circumstances of the foundations of the Sacra di San Michele.
As the legend goes, Saint Giovanni experienced several apparitions of Saint Michael. It may have happened either when he retired from his function as the archbishop, if we accept that version of his hagiography or yet before he actually became the archbishop. The former is more probable if it is assumed that follow-up constructing works changing the initial church into a Romanesque abbey started between 983 and 987. It is also important to underline that the Saint lived at the verge of the period in which the fear of the end of the world was very strong and frightening. With the new millennium, when the expected end did not come, the construction majestically grew in its structure and significance, as if it was an expression of mankind’s gratefulness sent to the Heavens.
There are no Better Construction Engineers than Angels
The known tradition says that Saint Michael ordered San Giovanni to erect his church on the Mount, as much as it earlier happened in the case of Saint Aubert in Normandy. San Giovanni was less reluctant in fulfilling Saint Michael’s demand than the Saint from Mont Saint Michel, and he started to build the church on the Mount Caprasio, where he lived, and which was famous for praying hermits. The works he started, however, could not be completed because the stones laid during the day (in other version, which is more possible, it was wood) mysteriously disappeared at night. San Giovanni was sure the stones were stolen by some thieves, he stayed awake to guard site of construction. Yet, what he saw at night terrified him greatly, as he discovered that the thieves are actually angels, who transported the stones on another mount nearby, which was the Mount Pirchiriano. Then San Giovanni understood it was Saint Michael’s desire to build his church just there, on the opposite mount. After this miraculous event, the Saint obediently followed the angels to the Pirchiriano, where he set up his new hermitage and continued to build the Archangel’s church.
The first legendary building was actually a very small church, constructed with the help of angels, or according to a different version, entirely built by human hands, whereas the angels had just brought the needed building material and so the miracle of constructing the church was continued by people. Nonetheless, it was consecrated by the angels, or by the Archangel himself, which explains the name of the Abbey as Sacra: consecrated, thus sacred. Very similar legends of angels involved in building sacred sites abound; the most famous is a folk story of the construction of the eleven churches of Lalibela in the twelfth century, in Ethiopia, where angels helped people in their construction, by taking a night shift position. On the other hand, the pseudographical text of the Testament of Solomon reads that there were fallen angels summoned by King to build the Temple, what they did in fear of the power of God’s angels. Accordingly, the mentioned ‘Fresco of the Legend’ shows angels, along doves, who transfer the wood from one mount to the other. There is also depicted the Bishop of Torino, Amizzone, who was coming to the Pirchiriano with the intention of consecrating the church, when he found out it had already been consecrated by the angels.
Ugo di Montboissier’s Penance
The second part of the legend, or the second legend, tells a story about the Abbey’s later founder, namely, the Count Ugo di Montboissier, who once encountered the hermitage of San Giovanni on the Mount Pirchiriano, with a simple church, or rather a complex of three small chapels built onsite dedicated to Sain Michael. The Count had actually been looking for redemption for his sins. The Pope gave him a choice of his penance: either he would go for an exile, which would be for him a religious pilgrimage, or he would give foundations to an abbey. Having known the history of the church on the Pirchiriano, Ugo finally decided to continue building works there on a much greater scale than before.
The Fresco shows him leaving the town of Susa and heading off to the Pirchiriano in order to establish the Monastery. The foundation was entrusted to Benedictine order, different in its organisation and ideals from the previously established Insular monasticism. In the thirteenth century, Saint Michael’s Abbey lived its Golden Age, when its majestic Romanesque silhouette gained additional Gothic additions. Nerveless, the decay of the Abbey came together with the fall of the Benedictines. Consequently, after 600 years the Abbey stayed abandoned, that is to say it till 1836, when it was entrusted to Rosimini Fathers on behalf of the Vatican. In was also then when the bodies of the Savoy family were moved from Torino to the Sacra, giving the beginnings to the “Trail of Princes” (or Nobles). The Rosimini Fathers are still in the Sacra, taking care of the monument as the symbol of the region, and a very important witness to the glorious past, and of Saint Michael’s intercession.
“Antica Mulattiera” and the “Trail of Princes”
Due to the fact that Sacra di San Michele has been a significant destination as the pilgrimage site, there are a few trails around the Mount, which are perfect for doing trekking. I would recommend the mentioned above out-and-back trail, which is called the “Trail of Princes” and starts in the community of Avigliana, yet it can also be done from Mortera, to finally arrive at Mont Pirchiriario. The name “Trail of Princes” was coined after 1836, when a funeral procession brought twenty-four corpses of the nobles of the Savoy family, along the way from the cathedral of Turin to the Abbey on top of the Mount!
The entire “Path of the Princes” takes around 3 hours (9 kilometres) to be completed and is of a moderate level of challenge. When there are less travellers, one can rally enjoy solitude and beauty of the path itself, which amazing panoramic views of Sacra di San Michele and the lakes of Avigliana. Yet, we did not follow that path back that time. Instead, we chose the trail of Antica Mulattiera, which means as much as the ‘Mule Track’. It is the most ancient forest path that curves up in zig-zags along the way from Sant’ Ambrogio to Sacra di San Michele, and back; it has been used as a traditional way of approaching the Abbey for at least a thousand years. It is quite steep and rugged, and hence demands from visitors to be in a better physical shape.
Climbing down towards Saint’ Ambrogio
We slowly descended worn-away cobblestones of the road, moving forward the town below, and catching glimpses of the towering Abbey behind us. For those, who are just making their way up with great effort, its silhouette must be a real promise of rest, and so also a desirable destination. While climbing down, we encountered there 15 stone crosses at the windings of the road, each representing one of the Stations of the Cross.
It allows us to travel back in time and join in mind medieval believers, where a pilgrimage was an integral part of Christian life, even though modern pilgrims changed today in tourists, looking for pleasure in hiking, inspiring views and food tested on the trail, and much less in Christian religion and its angels. You can still be on a spiritual search for your destiny, and enter, in the way a medieval pilgrim did it, into the grandeur of nature that eventually explodes in manmade (and angel made) complex of Saint Michael’s Abbey. Then you can observe how its architecture merges into the tissue of natural landscape. At the final section of the path, we additionally encountered wooden characters, as if taken straight from the Land of Oz.
Before us, the gate to Saint’ Ambrogio opened, with its church just below the steep alpine slope of the Mount and the outline of the Sanctuario, high above, crowning its top. Such a beuty of architecture and nature inspires feelings of transcendence and creates a continuation of the legend also in modern literature. In the imagination of an Italian debuting writer, Umberto Eco, Sacra di San Michele became in 1980 a perfect setting of a mysterious murder within the walls of Benedictine Abbey. Although it is only a literary fiction, the Abbey itslef stimulates an atmosphere of mystery; its large and steep stairway is called the Stairway of the Dead, where a few tombs with skeletons of Benedictine monks were found in large niches, and each of them had his own history. Yet, “the silence of the centuries dominates everything” (Traverso, 1992:11).
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.
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