The Church of Saint Margaret
There are no elements of certainty with regards to the origins of this ecclesiastical settlement located at the top of Saint Margaret Mountain, between Torre de’ Busi and Monte Marenzo. Nevertheless, according to the most accredited theory, the name of the sacellum is thought to be an important clue that places its foundation at the end of the XIII century. Such dating matches the construction techniques employed for this settlement, the architectural features of the building and the results of the recent studies carried out on the large cycle of paintings, which date their realization back between the XIV and XV century.
Two are the reasons that link the eccentric location of this religious building to the centre of Monte Marenzo: first, the presence of a military element; second, the consecration of the gentle hilly land of Monte Marenzo to Saint Margaret as the centre of the local religious practices, as demonstrated by some drawings of the XVI century.
Altogether, it is possible to identify five distinct architectural phases: the foundation and the restorations that followed in 1742, in 1879, in 1939 and in 1983. In 1787, the church, together with the Parish of Saint Paul, was transferred from the diocese of Milan to the diocese of Bergamo. As the documents seem to report, the building was still used for the liturgical celebration of the Saint.
The first documented maintenance intervention after its foundation dates back to 1740 when the Mangili Family from Portola, in Monte Marenzo, requested a series of renovation works to be carried out in the building as attested also by a note about the vicarial visit in 1742. After these restoration works, a period of decay followed and in 1858 Vicar Gianfranco D. Girolamo Cattaneo described the complex as a “deserted and abandoned place”. The preservation of the building was compromised.
The situation remained unchanged until 1879 when some undocumented restoration works were carried out. It seems plausible that it is during this period that one of the single-lancet windows of the apsis was closed while the two windows on the front were being opened. In the XX century, the documents report of a further deterioration of the state of the settlement. In 1939, as stated on the façade of the monument, a new maintenance intervention was carried out which included a new roof.
The fifth and last cycle of maintenance interventions began in 1983. This was a controversial series of works, which led to substantial modifications of the building, including a new roof, the removal of the external plastering, a new floor for both the internal and the external areas and some other works on the wooden elements of the openings and lights.
THE FRESCO CYCLE
The small chapel of Saint Margaret includes a series of extremely interesting paintings about Saint Margaret’s life that some experts described as one of the most valuable cycle of frescoes of the XIV century. The studies that followed the restorations in 1992 and 1994 traced the paintings back to the figurative culture of Bergamo between the XIV and XV century. The surface of the frescoes, today completely restored, appears fragmented due to the effects of deterioration and thefts, if compared with the original, which used to cover the entire walls of the small nave, of the apsis and of the counter-façade.
From an iconographic point of view, the frescoes reproduce three main themes: the episodes from the life of Saint Margaret of Antioch on the southern wall and on the counter-façade, Christ in Majesty on the vault of the apsis, complemented by other subjects in the tholobate, the Annunciation on the triumphal arch and the devotional frescoes on the northern wall.
The frescoes inside the apsis
- Christ in Majesty on the upper part. Christ Pantocrator among the four Evangelists.
- A curious detail of the frescoes on the vault of the apsis: an extremely rare representation of Christ walking up the Calvary Hill with his mother Mary trying to help him carry the cross.
The stolen frescoes
- Nursing Madonna
- Jesus in the garden tomb
Episodes from the life of Saint Margaret of Antioch
- Episode I: This is one of the two frescoes in the cycle dedicated to Saint Margaret that were stolen. From the photo in the archive, we can see that the crowned and aureoled Saint at the centre of the panel is crossing her arms to her chest devotedly while accepting the Christian teachings from her nurse. On the left, her heathen father is praying on bended knees to a false idol put on a temple. On the right, Margaret’s companions are taking care of the flocks of the nurse, whose sheep are grazing in the foreground.
- Episodie III: This fresco reproduces the meeting of the young girl with Olybrius. Olybrius, almost entirely absent on a part of the wall which is blank, is depicted on the side on a white pawing horse, with a number of other figures behind him, all in the saddle of their horses. Margaret raises her eyes to face the prefect and moves her hands vivaciously in order to explain the reasons of her refusal. Behind her, the two young noblemen represented on bended knees in the previous episode in front of Olybrius, look at the scene, unsure about what to do. One of them holds a finger on his mouth as to emphasize the amazement for such audacity.
- Episodie VIII: The Saint gets rid of the monstrous demonic form by making the sign of the cross. The young girl is smiling amicably while grabbing a tuft of hair from the head of the tamed beast with her left hand. Behind her, the dove of the Holy Spirit is perched on one the arms of the cross. The entire scene is reproduced behind a railing inserted onto the crenelated walls of the city of Antioch.
- Episode IX: Here we can see Margaret summoned by Olybrius for the second time in order to convince her to renounce her faith. Saint Margaret, on the left, frowns at him in disapproval and moves her hands dynamically to emphasize the arguments of her denial; behind her, we can see the railing of the prison she was kept in. The prefect sits in front of the young girl on his wooden throne under a canopy. He is also pointing out the elements of his proposal with eloquent gestures. At a certain point, it appears that the pious people of the village decided to punish Olybrius for his wickedness and disfigured his face in the fresco, which is now in fact damaged in many different parts.
- Episodie X: The Saint is now depicted naked with only a sheer veil tied around her hips, hanging from a horizontal pole with her arms tied up in robes. Two brackets hold up the rod so that the girl cannot touch the ground with her feet. As tradition wants it, this kind of torture consisted in beating the martyrs and tormenting them with the fire of the torches. In fact, we can clearly see the torturer on the left violently striking Margaret with two rods, while the torturer on the right tortures her side with the flames of a torch. Once more, the people, moved by their emotional participation to Margaret’s adversities, "avenged” the martyr scraping away the faces of the two torturers.
- Episode IX: This fresco is the biggest in size and the most saturated with meaning. On the left, according to the traditional narrative of the Saint’s life, the young girl is thrown into a cauldron of boiling water. The martyr, once again naked, is depicted in the act of invoking and praying to the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove perched on the horizontal arm of the cross and leaning to touch Margaret’s head. A miracle happens: the structure of the cauldron is broken and the staffs open up fanwise in a realistic representation of the fact, as if it were an ordinary episode of everyday life. On the right, an array of pagans represented on bended knees and with their hands folded, struck by this miracle, are converted to Christianity. In the middle up, Olybrius and his followers are astonished by this event of collective abjuration.
- Episode XII: This fresco illustrates Olybrius’ vengeance: outraged by this mass conversion to Christianity, he orders the beheading of all the neo-Christians. On the left, the prefect is represented next to his followers while suggesting to the executioner his next victim. The executioner, in the middle of the fresco, raises his sword to behead one of the newly converted neo-Christians bended on his knees while praying. Below we can clearly see a pile of beheaded heads in a puddle of blood; on the right, other victims are waiting for their turn with their hands tied behind their back. Behind them, some armed men are playing different instruments to celebrate their sentence with solemnity; in the background, a mass of bewildered people witnesses the massacre. It is interesting that this is the only scene where Margaret does not appear clearly.
- Episodio XIII: The final torment of the Saint. The young girl, finally dressed again, is on her knees waiting to be beheaded: her hands are tied behind her back with her head turned heavenwards. In the corner up, on the left, in a multi-coloured aureole, God looks kindly upon Margaret. Behind the Saint, the executioner is ready with his sword in the hand. Next to him, a woman witnesses the scene.
FIND OUT MORE
- VIRGILIO G., Le vie della fede, Collana di San Martino 2010
- MELAZZI C. e VACCARO S. (a cura di), Monte Marenzo tra storia, ambiente, immagini e memoria, ed. Comune di Monte Marenzo 2000
- ZASTROW O., Affreschi gotici del territorio di Lecco, vol. 2, Lecco 1990
HOW TO GET HERE
- From the city hall square of Monte Marenzo (province of Lecco): turn right in Via Fornace Nuova / SP178
- at the roundabout, take the 2nd exit onto Via Prato della Sorte,
- after 300 m, turn left in Via Ponte,
- after 200 m, park your car there and continue by foot keeping the right in Via Gaetano Donizetti.
- At the top of the road, take the dirt trail on the left in the small village of Portola.
The church can be reached in about 30 minutes walking - do not forget to bring a pair of comfortable trail shoes - with an elevation gain of about 100 m (not that difficult anyway). Bring your own water: there are no water sources on the trail. People with disabilities can contact the municipality in order to arrange the transport through vehicles designed for off highway (upon reservation only) 0341-602200.
Camper area: at Casa Corazza, via Papa Giovanni XXIII, Monte Marenzo
- Library Tel. 0341 - 602240
- City Hall Tel. 0341 - 602200
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