Coming to Life at the Sacro Monte of Varallo: the sacred image al vivo in post-Tridentine Italy

Benzan, Carla (2019). Coming to Life at the Sacro Monte of Varallo: the sacred image al vivo in post-Tridentine Italy. In: Balfe, Thomas; Woodall, Joanna and Zittel, Claus eds. Ad Vivum: visual materials and the vocabulary of life-likeness in Europe before 1800. Intersections: Interdisciplinary studies in early modern culture (61). Leiden: Brill, pp. 224–246.




Vividly painted life-size sculptures seem to come to life at the Sacro Monte of Varallo. Three-dimensional figures appear to have emerged, fully embodied, from the trompe l’oeil frescoes that decorate the chapel walls. The multimedia scenes themselves prompt this imaginative possibility. For example, the sculpted foot of a figure physically steps out into Pilate’s palatial throne room in Pilate Washes His Hands (ca. 1608–1621); Christ is presented in front of a painted architectural façade upon a high relief balcony that extends the wall’s surface in the Ecce Homo (1608–1616). These seventeenth-century chapels epitomize the possibility for the animation of images, by which I mean their apparent capacity for movement and life. Yet animation could have troubling consequences at the Sacro Monte. The transformative potential of images was a central issue for early modern viewers and commentators during the period of Catholic image reform. At this time the chapels that staged the biblical istorie were placed behind metal grilles or carved wooden screens. Apparently, the animate image could be too powerful, yet chapel construction actually increased at precisely this moment.

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