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Intimacy with the Sacred

· A exhibit in Sondrio ·

Even if they are articulated and undressed, sacred “nude” statues, those meant to be redressed in special garments and sometimes embellished with real hair, do not look like dolls: they are distinguished by their expression, serious and sorrowful, yet always somehow mysterious and at the same time majestic. And around their figures – which, unclothed, convey simplicity and poverty – one feels the devotion with surrounds them or has surrounded them, at least until some time ago. They are above all wooden statues of Mary – sometimes with the child in her arms, he too redressed – that, from Spanish influence, are found in many parts of Italy, among which Lombardy, where they are now being exhibited at Sondrio in the show “Intimacy with the Sacred. Clothed statues in the centre of the Alps”. These statues, thanks precisely to clothes, attempt a greater similitude to the human beings they venerate. By offering concrete proof that the Incarnation is true and that with the sacred, in the Christian tradition, we can come to physical contact.

For this reason one can, as the name of the exhibit suggests, come closer to the sacred with a kind of intimacy: they know it well the devout who have the privilege – often passed down from generation to generation – of cleaning the statues, of lovingly clothing them with sumptuous robes, gifts from the faithful, and of enjoying them. Like St. Frances, who in Greccio “kissed images of the Christ-child with great devotion and he stammered tender words such as children say”, as Benedict XVI recalled during Midnight Mass.

Certainly, a Madonna which you can touch, dress, caress – respectfully, of course – and kiss perhaps, excites strong emotions and feelings and, from what we gather from the essays in the catalogue accompanying the exhibit, it gives birth to an even stronger bond between the statue and the group of people who care for it, that is, in the place where it is venerated. This is how it is with the Cistercian nuns of Santa Susanna in Rome, who care with emotion and tenderness for their precious and ancient Madonna and Child, restoring clothes and hair when it becomes necessary.

Like them, the faithful from Valtellina, in the face of the repression of dressed statues launched by the Church hierarchy in the late 19th century, rather than renounce their Madonna often moved them to chapels in the mountains and as it were hid them, waiting for the storm to pass. Now that the storm has passed, this beautiful exhibit brings back the honour of the world and of devotion, thanks to restorations and studies returning the history of which each statue is the trustee.

There have been moments in history in which, due to pressure from external culture, even in the Church people have been a little ashamed of the more physical aspects of devotion among the faithful: during the Counter-Reformation, as a result of criticism from protestants, ecclesiastical hierarchy established strict rules for the visible representation of the sacred which would guarantee the seriousness of the faith and keep it far from every possible contamination by the material world. The preservation of sacred images – which the reformers meant to destroy as signs of idolatry – was safeguarded, but paid a price to the prudery of critics. At the end of the 1800's, however, it was scientific positivists who described the Church as an old fashioned reservoir of superstition and that, in many cases, resulted the rejection of traditions deemed too close to magic or fairy tales.

Thus, little by little – writes Cristina Campo – the perception of “spiritual senses” was lost; that ancient transcendent sensuality was wiped away by the reformation and the Enlightenment, when “every trial was duly overcome by teaching but seemed stripped of a piece of radiant embodiment, the vivid skin of ancient Christian life”. But the tradition is still alive if, as the Pope said in his homily on Christmas, “In the child born in the stable at Bethlehem, we can as it were touch and caress God”.




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 26, 2020