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.
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
4 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry. 3And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written,
5Then the devil took him to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’ ” 8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Then Jesus said to him, “Begone, Satan! for it is written,
11Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and ministered to him.
12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.
4And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit 2for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing in those days; and when they were ended, he was hungry. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” 4And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’ ” 5And the devil took him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, 6and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. 7If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours.” 8And Jesus answered him, “It is written,
9And he took him to Jerusalem, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here; 10for it is written,
12And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’ ” 13And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.