The Temptation of Christ (Chapel 13) by Jean de Wespin

Jean de Wespin and Michele Prestinari [Sculptures, attrib.]; Melchiorre d'Enrico [frescoes, attrib.; possibly with Tanzio da Varallo and Domenico Alfano di Perugia]

The Temptation of Christ (Chapel 13), c.1570–1600, Polychromed terracotta, fresco, various materials, The Sacro Monte di Varallo, Varallo Sesia, Italy, Photo: © Bill Matthews

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Up On The Mountain

Commentary by
Read by Chloë Reddaway

Christ’s first temptation is brought dramatically to life inside a pilgrimage chapel at the Sacro Monte ­di Varallo. The Sacro Monte (or Holy Mountain) is a unique pilgrimage site perched on a rocky bluff above the town of Varallo at the base of the Italian Alps.

Originally founded in 1491 as a spatial replica of pilgrimage shrines in the Holy Land, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it came to comprise forty-five chapels narrating different episodes from the gospels. Early modern pilgrims knelt at carved wooden partitions to peer through openings and meditate on sculpted and painted representations of Christ’s life. The painted backgrounds merge almost seamlessly with the three-dimensional sculpture to create a consistent and dramatic sense of space. Brightly painted lifesize sculptures seem to emerge from the perspectival frescos that cover the walls, floor, and ceiling of the architectural interiors.

Located near the rear wall of this barrel-vaulted chapel, the sculpted figure of the devil cradles a stone in his outstretched left palm. His other hand is raised in invitation as he turns to face the Son of God, who lifts his opposing hand in rebuke. The devil’s muted brown and green robes visually connect him to the painted wilderness behind him. A clear moral opposition between the figures is suggested by the contrast between these drab robes of the devil’s and the brightly-hued red and blue robes worn by Christ (symbolising his incarnation and divinity respectively). Christ is also distinguished from the jostling swarm of beasts represented in the rocky wilderness of the foreground: snarling, pacing, suckling their young, and devouring prey.

Behind the sculptures, and painted on the chapel walls, Christ and the devil are depicted in conversation in roughly the same scale as the sculptures. Standing closely together, Christ looks away from Satan, suggesting his rejection of the second and third temptations. These are represented further in the distance within a jewel-toned, atmospheric landscape. The Edenic vista connects the scene to the alpine terrain outside the chapel, contrasting with—and perhaps tempering—the ominous natural world that is represented in three dimensions in the foreground.

 

References

Göttler, Christine. 2013. ‘The Temptation of the Senses at the Sacro Monte di Varallo’, in Religion and the Senses in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Wietse de Boer and Christine Göttler (Leiden: Brill), pp. 393–445

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