The Holy Hermit in the Cliff – Northern Italy

Even on a seemingly ‘normal’ holiday, there is always something macabre, haunted or mummified to be found, sometimes when you least expect it.

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Santa Caterina, home of the Holy Hermit

I had never been to any part of Italy before but I knew that the likelihood of relics was high, Italy being predominantly Catholic. During my time in Stresa, on Lake Maggiore, I saw three full beatified saints, as well as a hidden mountainside church with electric Madonna and a tiny island cemetery. For a four day holiday, it was pretty amazing. Relic-wise.

As usual I’d researched the area – I hate the thought of going home only to discover I’ve missed a saint or cemetery because I didn’t look hard enough – and found a few Catholic churches within walking distance of our hotel, one of which talked about a martyred baby. On the main strip along the lakes edge, the Parish church of Stresa was no challenge to find and the body was lit inside the display case.

 

St Vitaliano was a ten month old baby, killed by the Romans during their persecution of the Christians and interred in the catacombs of San Callisto. It is not clear why this particular child was determined to be a saint, but the body was removed from its resting place and given as a present by Pope Gregory XVI to Madam Bolongaro in 1833 who kept it in her private chapel, before donating it to the Parish of Stresa. Every year, for more than a hundred years, the little saint is remembered at the church on the same day, although it is not clear whether the local children still carry the relic through the streets as they were rumoured to do in the 1800s. The church website does not make it clear what the child is the saint of, but the saints prayer compares Vitaliano to the baby Jesus so it is likely to be babies or infants.

San VitalianoDuring my travels I’ve seen some unusual things, and read about far more, but tiny Vitaliano was unusual even for me. For one, saints are usually adults, sometimes even the elderly, who have devoted their life to God, demonstrating their place as a saint through a lifetime of holy deeds. Those who are martyred are usually sainted because they chose to die rather than forsake Jesus. This child did not make the choice of religion over life. The second remarkable thing about Vitaliano is that their body was not actually on display. It was a porcelain representation that depicted the child as a cherub, round faced and pale with locks of golden curls. I wondered if this was more disturbing than if the body itself had been in the case, rather than under it.

A more impressive, and oddly less weird, relic was under the altar on nearby Isola Bella, an island almost completely given over to a huge grand house and garden. The house (actually a palace) was breathtaking and the gardens, complete with albino peacocks, were gorgeous, even in the rain, but San Vittore church had my attention first. I had already spotted the church on the lakefront as we approached by boat and once inside I peered into the side aisles for signs of a relic. As it happens their relic was under the central altar.

20180916_122558.jpgA full skeleton, dressed in pale blue and gold, his crowned skull resting on a satin pillow and holding what looked like feathers, he was quite impressive. I took a photo of what I assumed was some information about him, all in Italian, which I planned to translate when I got home. I discovered later that the placard described the remains of a saint that were little more than dust, kept under the main altar in an urn. This saint, San Vittore, the church’s patron, had been beheaded in 286 AD, which sparked countless churches in his name. There was no mention, however, of the full relic actually on display. After an evening searching the web I am still to find out who the full corpse was, much to my disappointment.

There are three islands off the coast of Stresa, two have historical houses and impressive gardens which attract tourists. People actually live on the third island, which means that people also die on it. We visited Isola Pescatori at my request because it housed the Piccolo Cemetery, a tiny Fisherman’s cemetery in the centre of the island. The cemetery is very small, perhaps ten meters square, with two miniature mausoleums and some cosy headstones, wall plaques and a palm tree.

20180916_153201.jpgMany of the people buried there are fishermen, with a number of stones reading ‘disperso in mare’ and while the church it is attached to is still very much in use, I would be surprised if the graveyard was still accepting new residents. According to Wikipedia the population of the island is only 25, but even so the cemetery was full. It was tucked down an alley, behind the church and surrounded by walls. If there was room for a bench it would have been a peaceful place to sit and feel completely alone on the island.

The following day we stayed on land (mostly) as we got a cable car up the mountain behind Stresa. Well, two cable cars and a ski lift. By the time we got to the top we couldn’t see the town and there was almost no sign of life. Except for a derelict restaurant, a quiet cafe and a small church, of course. Needing no encouragement my chap readily agreed to investigate the mountain-top church, in the hopes of finding something remarkable. Or at least something saintly. We found only a beautiful and serene church, rather modern compared to the previous we’d visited. It was my first time seeing a Madonna with a light up halo though, so I decided that was a win.

 

We’d crammed so much in (I also did some normal tourist type things while I was there, as well as drinking wine much too early in the day) I’d almost resigned myself to not crossing off the last destination on my wishlist. Thankfully I have a partner who won’t let me give in that easily and we caught a different boat all the way across the lake to the far side. One of the first places I’d jotted down when researching Stresa was Santa Catarina, a monastery built into the cliff face, too picturesque to be real it looked like something from a fantasy film.

2018-10-17 21.26.09.jpgIt was a bright sunny day, great for a boat trip, but when we arrived my heart sank as we discovered the monastery closed between 1 and 2pm. Our boat had dropped us at the jetty at 12.40pm. I nearly gave up right there but was dragged out of my sulk with a ‘let’s have a quick look anyway shall we?’ from my chap. Others must have done their research as only a handful of people had gotten off the boat with us, and even fewer were trying to look around the monastery. Up several sets of stone steps and along a cliff side corridor there was a secluded garden courtyard and an unassuming church door. The church itself was quite small, humble and dimly lit, with frescos on the ceiling and wooden pews, no ostentatious Bishop’s heads in gold and silver here. My fella, on the other side of the chapel, shot me a look, one we have honed from countless visits to churches and cathedrals that says ‘get over here, I’ve found something!’ without making a sound. I rounded a pillar and saw the most impressive relic so far. It looked like a monk, dressed in a plain white cloth gown with hood, laid chest height in a glass coffin with a wooden frame. No crown, no satin pillow, no gilt legs or jewelled torso. He was amazingly preserved, considering he lived in the 12th century.

 

His name was Alberto Besozzi and he was apparently a greedy man, trading or selling anything to make money. Local rumour said he sold his soul to the devil to make him richer. The legend says that he nearly died in a storm while out on his boat, but he asked God to save him and in a flash his boat was illuminated in the darkness and he ran aground on the rocks. Alberto built the chapel, now housed inside Santa Caterina monastery, in the cliff where God saved him from the sea, and spent his remaining days a pious and worshipful hermit.

Entrance to the monastery was free, so when I took a photograph of Alberto I left a few coins to thank him for making my holiday and for reminding me to explore everything, no matter how little time you have.

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