Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

California Italian Studies

California Italian Studies banner

Image as Relic: Bodily Vision and the Reconstitution of Viewer/Image Relationships at the Sacro Monte di Varallo


This essay addresses issues of vision and the role of the material image in devotional practice at the Sacro Monte di Varallo, a fifteenth-century Italian pilgrimage site built by Franciscans to simulate the experience of visiting the Holy Land through mimetically recreated sacred places.  Beginning in the early sixteenth century, the small chapels that marked the Sacro Monte’s recreated the sacred sites were filled with life-size tableaux representing episodes from the life of Christ.  Visitors could interact physically with the tableaux until the mid-sixteenth century when architect Galeazzo Alessi designed glass partitions, or vetriate, to separate the viewers from the figures.  The following paper discusses the impact of the vetriate on the nature of viewer/image relationships at the Sacro Monte.  Previously, scholars have viewed the vetriate only as disciplining instruments of the Counter-Reformation, designed to prevent viewers from wrongly venerating the material image by restricting physical access to the tableaux.  Through an analysis the Libro dei Misteri (1565-1569), the book in which Alessi recorded his plans for the Sacro Monte, I argue that in fact the vetriate created an ambivalent relationship between the viewer and the material image by disciplining the viewer’s physical relationship with the tableaux while simultaneously enshrining the images in a manner similar to a reliquary.  I approach the vetriate as frames that not only influence the viewer’s bodily relationship to the tableaux but also his or her mode of engaging with the image.  I argue that the vetriate, by virtue of their construction and decoration, would have signaled to the viewer the importance, even preciousness, of the tableaux.  The mimetic qualities of the Sacro Monte as well as contemporaneous literature that addresses reliquaries and the partitioning of ecclesiastical space, support the argument that the vetriate enhanced rather than diminished the material importance of the tableaux and their role as relic-like links between the viewer and the life of Christ.




Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View