The Hermitage and Sanctuary of Santa Maria Giacobbe, Carved Out of Sheer Rock
West of Pale and after passing the hill that also bears this name, a small road leads upwards, marked by 14 Via Crucis stops, towards the hermitage of Santa Maria di Giacobbe (525 metres above sea level). A unique panorama stretches before the visitor at this point.
The hermitage was built around 1200 to worship ‘Maria Jacobi’, one of the pious women supposed to have been present at the cucifixion of Christ and who popular tradition tells retired here to lead a life of penance.
Positioin and Cult of the Sanctuary
Initially the sanctuary had been designed lower down but the architects and technicians working on the project at the time insisted that the building stand where it is now.
Two processions a year to the sanctuary are still carried out today, on the saint's feast day (April 25th) and on Ascension Day . The April 25th procession is carried out by the villagers of Pale, while the Ascension Day procession involves all the villages of the lower Menotre valley. The processions are carried out as a tribute to the ancestors, given that the cult of the dead is particularly strong in all these mountain communities.
Under a rock at the entrance of the sanctuary's sacred area are buried the dead of the village of Pale. Those entering the sanctuary itself are obliged to purify themselves, either by crossing running water (many sanctuaries are in fact near rivers or streams) or by walking barefoot up a steep hill.
Before embarking on their walk to the sanctuary, the faithful turn to a heel mark that has been carved out of the rock at the beginning of the path. The mark, allegedly a dent left by Santa Maria di Giacobbe herself, is believed to ward off evil influences.
The Church and its Frescoes
As is carved on a stone slab opposite the entrance, the small church was restored in 1712. The interior is decorated with a number of frescoes that can be divided into two categories: votive painting and ornamental painting. Hewn directly from the rock of the cliffside, the vault has been frescoed by a painter imitating the Senese school. The dominant figure is Christ in the act of blessing, while the birth of Jesus is represented in the large fresco to the right of the entrance.
The fresco on the opposite wall, in front of the Nativity, represents the death of the Virgin. It has been attributed to Cola di Petrucciolo, a very well known painter in Umbria, who came from Orvieto and was a follower of Giotto. Another fresco of an enthroned Madonna decorates the same wall. She has the likeness of the Madonna delle Grazie in Foligno and is also called the Madonna della Cintura. The earliest frescoes are behind the altar, painted directly on the rock face. They are three figures, painted between 1200 and 1300, representing Santa Maria Giacobbe, St Lucy and an enthroned Madonna probably painted at the beginning of the 14th century.
The entrance wall is decorated with St Christopher at the top and St Sebastian beneath, flanked by two female saints. Next to these is the most mysterious fresco in the sanctuary, depicting the Santo Volto of Lucca. This work certainly predates 1392. Following the theft of an 18th century wooden statue of the Madonna, the church's silver and a number of ex-voto painted on panels, two of the most easily removable treasures have been moved to the parish church of San Biagio in Pale, for security reasons. These are the recovered wooden statue of the Madonna and the altar piece depicting Santa Maria Giacobbe, completed in 1507 by Lattanzio, the son of Niccolò di Liberatore known as l'Alunno.
The Hermit of Pale
Today the sanctuary is run by the Santesato institute. In the past a hermit acted as caretaker. The earliest records of hermits inhabiting the sanctuary date back to the 16th century and the last hermit to live here died in 1963. The hermit's dwelling is attached to the sanctuary itself and includes a small kitchen garden. The hermit would therefore pass his time between working in his kitchen garden and praying in the sanctuary. Acting as a kind of go-between figure between the sanctuary and the local community, the hermits that lived here were very highly esteemed. The hermit's house contains some recent ex-voto. The oldest have either been stolen or taken somewhere safer. During the two world wars, when the threat of death was always looming, the sanctuary gained enormous importance for the locals, who came here frequently on pilgrimages.
Visitors to this extraordinary place can stop along the banks of the Menotre river for something to eat at the Guesia hotel restaurant, Ponte Santa Lucia, Foligno.
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