hidden europe 19

New Jerusalems: European sacri monti

by Nicky Gardner


With Eastertide in mind, we explore some devotional itineraries that led to New Jerusalems all over Europe. From Portugal to Poland, sacri monti (sacred mountains or calvaries) often offer very local interpretations of classic religious landscapes.

Braga is the most extraordinary spot. The Portuguese town drips religion at every turn. You would scarcely know that the cathedral complex (known as the Sé) is located on the site of an old mosque. Braga is so Catholic that it is hard to envisage that the community's loyalties were ever directed to anywhere other than Rome. Head out to the outskirts of the town to Bom Jesus do Monte, an engaging Baroque church set on the mountainside and fronted by a fabulous symmetrical staircase - up which repentant pilgrims climb on their hands and knees. The church at Bom Jesus is surrounded by little grottos. The hills above have a series of statues and sanctuaries, some little more than a niche in the rock, while others, like the Sanctuário do Sameiro, are extravagant monuments to devotional zeal.

Braga is not alone. Across Europe, there are hundreds of examples of sacri monti: sometimes called calvaries or sacred mounts. Many come into their own at Eastertide, when the biblical account of Christ's Passion, death and resurrection is re-enacted. Others are year-round religious hotspots: some attract merely local interest; while others, like the magnificent park at Kalwaria Zebrzydowska in southern Poland with its array of two dozen chapels and multiple shrines, exert a truly international appeal attracting pilgrims and tourists from far and wide.

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