Madonna di Belmonte, Valperga, Torino, Piedmont, Italy
In the first years of the second millennium, an abbey of Benedictine nuns arose on the hill of Belmonte, 2,000 feet above the town of Valperga in northwestern Italy. According to tradition, Arduin of Ivrea, Lombard King of Italy, founded it as a dependency of Fruttuaria 14 miles south, a men's abbey which he also founded and to which he retired before his death in 1015. Belmonte was settled by nuns from Busano convent, five miles south, founded by Blessed Libania (d. 1064). In some stories, the Virgin herself appeared to King Arduin requesting construction; in others, he built the abbey in thanks for a healing or to fulfill a vow, along with other regional shrines.
Apparently, the Belmonte foundation had declined some three hundred years later in 1326 when Guido II Valperga, Bishop of Asti, who had entered religious life at Fruttaria at age 15, lay paralyzed by gout and dreamed that the Virgin appeared with St. Secundus, patron of Asti, and touched him, asking for the renovation of Belmonte. In the morning, the bishop was well enough to celebrate the festal mass of St. Secundus. He bought and restored Belmonte Abbey and repopulated it with nuns from Asti.Benedictine sisters lived there until 1601, when, in accordance with the Council of Trent's dictates against nuns living outside city walls, they relocated to Cuorgnè about three miles north. At their departure, when they began to remove their old Madonna statue, the church grew dark and the Virgin's face pallid. Everyone understood this as a miraculous sign that the statue should remain.
Franciscan Friars Minor took over the monastery, completely rebuilding it in 1620. In the 1700s they transformed Belmonte into a Sacro Monte featuring a Way of the Cross with chapels circling the holy hill and a roomful of ex votos left by grateful pilgrims. After a Vatican investigation of the miracles attributed to the Virgin of Belmonte, the statue was canonically crowned on August 17, 1788.
During the Napoleonic period, French soldiers took the Virgin's statue in mock procession to a pyre in Valperga, but before they could light it, a storm blew in and they scattered. A brave and pious neighbor, Ottavia Delibera Ottini, grabbed the holy object and took it to her house for safekeeping. After Napoleon's defeat Belmonte was again rebuilt, and a second coronation took place in 1888. The gold crowns of the Madonna and Child of Belmonte were stolen in January 2006; the Archbishop of Turin blessed new ones in a third coronation ceremony the following August.
There is not much information about the age of the sacred statue, but its style resembles that of European Sedes Sapentiae (Seat of Wisdom) statues of the late 1100s, in which the child sits in the middle of his mother's lap, facing forward, as if on a throne.
The Friars Minor still maintain the Holy Hill, surrounded by the chestnut forests of a nature reserve. The people of Valperga make an annual pilgrimage there on August 17.
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