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The Sanctuary of Montrigone

The only place in the Valsesia, except Varallo, where I at present
suspect the presence of Tabachetti {7} is at Montrigone, a little-
known sanctuary dedicated to St. Anne, about three-quarters of a
mile south of Borgo-Sesia station. The situation is, of course,
lovely, but the sanctuary does not offer any features of
architectural interest. The sacristan told me it was founded in
1631; and in 1644 Giovanni d'Enrico, while engaged in superintending
and completing the work undertaken here by himself and Giacomo
Ferro, fell ill and died. I do not know whether or no there was an
earlier sanctuary on the same site, but was told it was built on the
demolition of a stronghold belonging to the Counts of Biandrate.

The incidents which it illustrates are treated with even more than
the homeliness usual in works of this description when not dealing
with such solemn events as the death and passion of Christ. Except
when these subjects were being represented, something of the
latitude, and even humour, allowed in the old mystery plays was
permitted, doubtless from a desire to render the work more
attractive to the peasants, who were the most numerous and most
important pilgrims. It is not until faith begins to be weak that it
fears an occasionally lighter treatment of semi-sacred subjects, and
it is impossible to convey an accurate idea of the spirit prevailing
at this hamlet of sanctuary without attuning oneself somewhat to the
more pagan character of the place. Of irreverence, in the sense of
a desire to laugh at things that are of high and serious import,
there is not a trace, but at the same time there is a certain
unbending of the bow at Montrigone which is not perceivable at
Varallo.

The first chapel to the left on entering the church is that of the
Birth of the Virgin. St. Anne is sitting up in bed. She is not at
all ill--in fact, considering that the Virgin has only been born
about five minutes, she is wonderful; still the doctors think it may
be perhaps better that she should keep her room for half an hour
longer, so the bed has been festooned with red and white paper
roses, and the counterpane is covered with bouquets in baskets and
in vases of glass and china. These cannot have been there during
the actual birth of the Virgin, so I suppose they had been in
readiness, and were brought in from an adjoining room as soon as the
baby had been born. A lady on her left is bringing in some more
flowers, which St. Anne is receiving with a smile and most gracious
gesture of the hands. The first thing she asked for, when the birth
was over, was for her three silver hearts. These were immediately
brought to her, and she has got them all on, tied round her neck
with a piece of blue silk ribbon.

Dear mamma has come. We felt sure she would, and that any little
misunderstandings between her and Joachim would ere long be
forgotten and forgiven. They are both so good and sensible if they
would only understand one another. At any rate, here she is, in
high state at the right hand of the bed. She is dressed in black,
for she has lost her husband some few years previously, but I do not
believe a smarter, sprier old lady for her years could be found in
Palestine, nor yet that either Giovanni d'Enrico or Giacomo Ferro
could have conceived or executed such a character. The sacristan
wanted to have it that she was not a woman at all, but was a
portrait of St. Joachim, the Virgin's father. "Sembra una donna,"
he pleaded more than once, "ma non e donna." Surely, however, in
works of art even more than in other things, there is no "is" but
seeming, and if a figure seems female it must be taken as such.
Besides, I asked one of the leading doctors at Varallo whether the
figure was man or woman. He said it was evident I was not married,
for that if I had been I should have seen at once that she was not
only a woman but a mother-in-law of the first magnitude, or, as he
called it, "una suocera tremenda," and this without knowing that I
wanted her to be a mother-in-law myself. Unfortunately she had no
real drapery, so I could not settle the question as my friend Mr. H.
F. Jones and I had been able to do at Varallo with the figure of Eve
that had been turned into a Roman soldier assisting at the capture
of Christ. I am not, however, disposed to waste more time upon
anything so obvious, and will content myself with saying that we
have here the Virgin's grandmother. I had never had the pleasure,
so far as I remembered, of meeting this lady before, and was glad to
have an opportunity of making her acquaintance.

Tradition says that it was she who chose the Virgin's name, and if
so, what a debt of gratitude do we not owe her for her judicious
selection! It makes one shudder to think what might have happened
if she had named the child Keren-Happuch, as poor Job's daughter was
called. How could we have said, "Ave Keren-Happuch!" What would
the musicians have done? I forget whether Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz was
a man or a woman, but there were plenty of names quite as
unmanageable at the Virgin's grandmother's option, and we cannot
sufficiently thank her for having chosen one that is so euphonious
in every language which we need take into account. For this reason
alone we should not grudge her her portrait, but we should try to
draw the line here. I do not think we ought to give the Virgin's
great-grandmother a statue. Where is it to end? It is like Mr.
Crookes's ultimissimate atoms; we used to draw the line at ultimate
atoms, and now it seems we are to go a step farther back and have
ultimissimate atoms. How long, I wonder, will it be before we feel
that it will be a material help to us to have ultimissimissimate
atoms? Quavers stopped at demi-semi-demi, but there is no reason to
suppose that either atoms or ancestresses of the Virgin will be so
complacent.

I have said that on St. Anne's left hand there is a lady who is
bringing in some flowers. St. Anne was always passionately fond of
flowers. There is a pretty story told about her in one of the
Fathers, I forget which, to the effect that when a child she was
asked which she liked best--cakes or flowers? She could not yet
speak plainly and lisped out, "Oh fowses, pretty fowses"; she added,
however, with a sigh and as a kind of wistful corollary, "but cakes
are very nice." She is not to have any cakes, just now, but as soon
as she has done thanking the lady for her beautiful nosegay, she is
to have a couple of nice new-laid eggs, that are being brought her
by another lady. Valsesian women immediately after their
confinement always have eggs beaten up with wine and sugar, and one
can tell a Valsesian Birth of the Virgin from a Venetian or a
Florentine by the presence of the eggs. I learned this from an
eminent Valsesian professor of medicine, who told me that, though
not according to received rules, the eggs never seemed to do any
harm. Here they are evidently to be beaten up, for there is neither
spoon nor egg-cup, and we cannot suppose that they were hard-boiled.
On the other hand, in the Middle Ages Italians never used egg-cups
and spoons for boiled eggs. The mediaeval boiled egg was always
eaten by dipping bread into the yolk.

Behind the lady who is bringing in the eggs is the under-under-nurse
who is at the fire warming a towel. In the foreground we have the
regulation midwife holding the regulation baby (who, by the way, was
an astonishingly fine child for only five minutes old). Then comes
the under-nurse--a good buxom creature, who, as usual, is feeling
the water in the bath to see that it is of the right temperature.
Next to her is the head-nurse, who is arranging the cradle. Behind
the head-nurse is the under-under-nurse's drudge, who is just going
out upon some errands. Lastly--for by this time we have got all
round the chapel--we arrive at the Virgin's grandmother's-body-
guard, a stately, responsible-looking lady, standing in waiting upon
her mistress. I put it to the reader--is it conceivable that St.
Joachim should have been allowed in such a room at such a time, or
that he should have had the courage to avail himself of the
permission, even though it had been extended to him? At any rate,
is it conceivable that he should have been allowed to sit on St.
Anne's right hand, laying down the law with a "Marry, come up here,"
and a "Marry, go-down there," and a couple of such unabashed collars
as the old lady has put on for the occasion?

Moreover (for I may as well demolish this mischievous confusion
between St. Joachim and his mother-in-law once and for all), the
merest tyro in hagiology knows that St. Joachim was not at home when
the Virgin was born. He had been hustled out of the temple for
having no children, and had fled desolate and dismayed into the
wilderness. It shows how silly people are, for all the time he was
going, if they had only waited a little, to be the father of the
most remarkable person of purely human origin who had ever been
born, and such a parent as this should surely not be hurried. The
story is told in the frescoes of the chapel of Loreto, only a
quarter of an hour's walk from Varallo, and no one can have known it
better than D'Enrico. The frescoes are explained by written
passages that tell us how, when Joachim was in the desert, an angel
came to him in the guise of a fair, civil young gentleman, and told
him the Virgin was to be born. Then, later on, the same young
gentleman appeared to him again, and bade him "in God's name be
comforted, and turn again to his content," for the Virgin had been
actually born. On which St. Joachim, who seems to have been of
opinion that marriage after all WAS rather a failure, said that, as
things were going on so nicely without him, he would stay in the
desert just a little longer, and offered up a lamb as a pretext to
gain time. Perhaps he guessed about his mother-in-law, or he may
have asked the angel. Of course, even in spite of such evidence as
this I may be mistaken about the Virgin's grandmother's sex, and the
sacristan may be right; but I can only say that if the lady sitting
by St. Anne's bedside at Montrigone is the Virgin's father--well, in
that case I must reconsider a good deal that I have been accustomed
to believe was beyond question.

Taken singly, I suppose that none of the figures in the chapel,
except the Virgin's grandmother, should be rated very highly. The
under-nurse is the next best figure, and might very well be
Tabachetti's, for neither Giovanni d'Enrico nor Giacomo Ferro was
successful with his female characters. There is not a single really
comfortable woman in any chapel by either of them on the Sacro Monte
at Varallo. Tabachetti, on the other hand, delighted in women; if
they were young he made them comely and engaging, if they were old
he gave them dignity and individual character, and the under-nurse
is much more in accordance with Tabachetti's habitual mental
attitude than with D'Enrico's or Giacomo Ferro's. Still there are
only four figures out of the eleven that are mere otiose supers, and
taking the work as a whole it leaves a pleasant impression as being
throughout naive and homely, and sometimes, which is of less
importance, technically excellent.

Allowance must, of course, be made for tawdry accessories and
repeated coats of shiny oleaginous paint--very disagreeable where it
has peeled off and almost more so where it has not. What work could
stand against such treatment as the Valsesian terra-cotta figures
have had to put up with? Take the Venus of Milo; let her be done in
terra-cotta, and have run, not much, but still something, in the
baking; paint her pink, two oils, all over, and then varnish her--it
will help to preserve the paint; glue a lot of horsehair on to her
pate, half of which shall have come off, leaving the glue still
showing; scrape her, not too thoroughly, get the village drawing-
master to paint her again, and the drawing-master in the next
provincial town to put a forest background behind her with the
brightest emerald-green leaves that he can do for the money; let
this painting and scraping and repainting be repeated several times
over; festoon her with pink and white flowers made of tissue paper;
surround her with the cheapest German imitations of the cheapest
decorations that Birmingham can produce; let the night air and
winter fogs get at her for three hundred years, and how easy, I
wonder, will it be to see the goddess who will be still in great
part there? True, in the case of the Birth of the Virgin chapel at
Montrigone, there is no real hair and no fresco background, but time
has had abundant opportunities without these. I will conclude my
notice of this chapel by saying that on the left, above the door
through which the under-under-nurse's drudge is about to pass, there
is a good painted terra-cotta bust, said--but I believe on no
authority--to be a portrait of Giovanni d'Enrico. Others say that
the Virgin's grandmother is Giovanni d'Enrico, but this is even more
absurd than supposing her to be St. Joachim.

The next chapel to the Birth of the Virgin is that of the
Sposalizio. There is no figure here which suggests Tabachetti, but
still there are some very good ones. The best have no taint of
barocco; the man who did them, whoever he may have been, had
evidently a good deal of life and go, was taking reasonable pains,
and did not know too much. Where this is the case no work can fail
to please. Some of the figures have real hair and some terra cotta.
There is no fresco background worth mentioning. A man sitting on
the steps of the altar with a book on his lap, and holding up his
hand to another, who is leaning over him and talking to him, is
among the best figures; some of the disappointed suitors who are
breaking their wands are also very good.

The angel in the Annunciation chapel, which comes next in order, is
a fine, burly, ship's-figurehead, commercial-hotel sort of being
enough, but the Virgin is very ordinary. There is no real hair and
no fresco background, only three dingy old blistered pictures of no
interest whatever.

In the visit of Mary to Elizabeth there are three pleasing
subordinate lady attendants, two to the left and one to the right of
the principal figures; but these figures themselves are not
satisfactory. There is no fresco background. Some of the figures
have real hair and some terra cotta.

In the Circumcision and Purification chapel--for both these events
seem contemplated in the one that follows--there are doves, but
there is neither dog nor knife. Still Simeon, who has the infant
Saviour in his arms, is looking at him in a way which can only mean
that, knife or no knife, the matter is not going to end here. At
Varallo they have now got a dreadful knife for the Circumcision
chapel. They had none last winter. What they have now got would do
very well to kill a bullock with, but could not be used
professionally with safety for any animal smaller than a rhinoceros.
I imagine that some one was sent to Novara to buy a knife, and that,
thinking it was for the Massacre of the Innocents chapel, he got the
biggest he could see. Then when he brought it back people said
"chow" several times, and put it upon the table and went away.

Returning to Montrigone, the Simeon is an excellent figure, and the
Virgin is fairly good, but the prophetess Anna, who stands just
behind her, is by far the most interesting in the group, and is
alone enough to make me feel sure that Tabachetti gave more or less
help here, as he had done years before at Orta. She, too, like the
Virgin's grandmother, is a widow lady, and wears collars of a cut
that seems to have prevailed ever since the Virgin was born some
twenty years previously. There is a largeness and simplicity of
treatment about the figure to which none but an artist of the
highest rank can reach, and D'Enrico was not more than a second or
third-rate man. The hood is like Handel's Truth sailing upon the
broad wings of Time, a prophetic strain that nothing but the old
experience of a great poet can reach. The lips of the prophetess
are for the moment closed, but she has been prophesying all the
morning, and the people round the wall in the background are in
ecstasies at the lucidity with which she has explained all sorts of
difficulties that they had never been able to understand till now.
They are putting their forefingers on their thumbs and their thumbs
on their forefingers, and saying how clearly they see it all and
what a wonderful woman Anna is. A prophet indeed is not generally
without honour save in his own country, but then a country is
generally not without honour save with its own prophet, and Anna has
been glorifying her country rather than reviling it. Besides, the
rule may not have applied to prophetesses.

The Death of the Virgin is the last of the six chapels inside the
church itself. The Apostles, who of course are present, have all of
them real hair, but, if I may say so, they want a wash and a brush-
up so very badly that I cannot feel any confidence in writing about
them. I should say that, take them all round, they are a good
average sample of apostle as apostles generally go. Two or three of
them are nervously anxious to find appropriate quotations in books
that lie open before them, which they are searching with eager
haste; but I do not see one figure about which I should like to say
positively that it is either good or bad. There is a good bust of a
man, matching the one in the Birth of the Virgin chapel, which is
said to be a portrait of Giovanni d'Enrico, but it is not known whom
it represents.

Outside the church, in three contiguous cells that form part of the
foundations, are:-


1. A dead Christ, the head of which is very impressive while the
rest of the figure is poor. I examined the treatment of the hair,
which is terra-cotta, and compared it with all other like hair in
the chapels above described; I could find nothing like it, and think
it most likely that Giacomo Ferro did the figure, and got Tabachetti
to do the head, or that they brought the head from some unused
figure by Tabachetti at Varallo, for I know no other artist of the
time and neighbourhood who could have done it.

2. A Magdalene in the desert. The desert is a little coal-cellar
of an arch, containing a skull and a profusion of pink and white
paper bouquets, the two largest of which the Magdalene is hugging
while she is saying her prayers. She is a very self-sufficient
lady, who we may be sure will not stay in the desert a day longer
than she can help, and while there will flirt even with the skull if
she can find nothing better to flirt with. I cannot think that her
repentance is as yet genuine, and as for her praying there is no
object in her doing so, for she does not want anything.

3. In the next desert there is a very beautiful figure of St. John
the Baptist kneeling and looking upwards. This figure puzzles me
more than any other at Montrigone; it appears to be of the fifteenth
rather than the sixteenth century; it hardly reminds me of
Gaudenzio, and still less of any other Valsesian artist. It is a
work of unusual beauty, but I can form no idea as to its authorship.


I wrote the foregoing pages in the church at Montrigone itself,
having brought my camp-stool with me. It was Sunday; the church was
open all day, but there was no mass said, and hardly any one came.
The sacristan was a kind, gentle, little old man, who let me do
whatever I wanted. He sat on the doorstep of the main door, mending
vestments, and to this end was cutting up a fine piece of figured
silk from one to two hundred years old, which, if I could have got
it, for half its value, I should much like to have bought. I sat in
the cool of the church while he sat in the doorway, which was still
in shadow, snipping and snipping, and then sewing, I am sure with
admirable neatness. He made a charming picture, with the arched
portico over his head, the green grass and low church wall behind
him, and then a lovely landscape of wood and pasture and valleys and
hillside. Every now and then he would come and chirrup about
Joachim, for he was pained and shocked at my having said that his
Joachim was some one else and not Joachim at all. I said I was very
sorry, but I was afraid the figure was a woman. He asked me what he
was to do. He had known it, man and boy, this sixty years, and had
always shown it as St. Joachim; he had never heard any one but
myself question his ascription, and could not suddenly change his
mind about it at the bidding of a stranger. At the same time he
felt it was a very serious thing to continue showing it as the
Virgin's father if it was really her grandmother. I told him I
thought this was a case for his spiritual director, and that if he
felt uncomfortable about it he should consult his parish priest and
do as he was told.

On leaving Montrigone, with a pleasant sense of having made
acquaintance with a new and, in many respects, interesting work, I
could not get the sacristan and our difference of opinion out of my
head. What, I asked myself, are the differences that unhappily
divide Christendom, and what are those that divide Christendom from
modern schools of thought, but a seeing of Joachims as the Virgin's
grandmothers on a larger scale? True, we cannot call figures
Joachim when we know perfectly well that they are nothing of the
kind; but I registered a vow that henceforward when I called
Joachims the Virgin's grandmothers I would bear more in mind than I
have perhaps always hitherto done, how hard it is for those who have
been taught to see them as Joachims to think of them as something
different. I trust that I have not been unfaithful to this vow in
the preceding article. If the reader differs from me, let me ask
him to remember how hard it is for one who has got a figure well
into his head as the Virgin's grandmother to see it as Joachim.

Samuel Butler

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