San Romedio Sanctuary: the Small 'Mount Athos' of Trentino


Saint Romedio the Hermit

The compound of buildings of San Romedio Sanctuary forms one of the most important religious sites in Trentino.

It is said that Romedio, when already a saint, arrived in Trento riding ‘the bear that had savaged his horse’. History cannot confirm this legend; however, it does confirm that San Romedio lived at the turn of the 1st millennium, just as we are now living at the turn of the 2nd millennium.

Around the 10th or 11th century, a strong hermitic movement flourished across Europe: holy men chose to live alone, without the need to found religious communities, and retired to live in isolation up on rocks and caves to better search for God at a time of particular social-religious upheaval.

San Romedio (from the Latin Remedius, meaning ‘remedy for ills’ or ‘ favour of God’) was born into the Bavarian nobility; he owned a castle at Thaur in the Inn valley near Innsbruck, acres of land with over a thousand ‘cives’ (inhabitants) at his service, and apparently he also received an income from some salt mines. While travelling as a pilgrim on the road to Rome, he befriended the bishop of Trento and a conversion must have happened, as on his return he donated all his properties to the Diocese of St. Vigil in Trento (or perhaps to San Vigilio in person, according to some documents, which date the event to the 4th century) as well as to the Diocese of Augusta (Augsburg), in Bavaria.

Following directions from the bishop of Trento, the saint continued his pilgrimage all the way to Sanzeno, to the tomb of the local martyr saints Sisinius, Martiryum and Alexander, and then began his new life up on the rocks where the sanctuary still stands today.

San Romedio settled himself inside a cave and built a shrine, or possibly the ancient church itself, while tending the land and becoming the frugal man who, overcoming his natural aggressiveness, was eventually able to get along well even with a bear. Upon his death, at around 74 years of age, San Romedio’s body was buried on a hill above the cave, in the same spot where he had built his cross or shrine, and the tomb soon became a destination for pilgrimages.

By the end of the year 1000, the cult of Saint Romedio was firmly established and officially recognized by the then bishop of Trento, Adalperone. In 1120 the holy relics were transferred into an urn placed in an extant chapel prepared for that purpose. Some relics were donated to other churches across Tyrol, Bavaria and even Bohemia through the local Counts of Thun, who governed the area at the time. Today the sanctuary remains a popular destination for pilgrimages, especially from Trentino and the whole Tyrolean area, thereby serving the purpose of uniting people now ‘divided’ by the Alpine ridge but historically and culturally connected.


The Evocative Power of the Sanctuary

To reach the sanctuary visitors must follow a path. Setting off from the main square in Sanzeno, it is necessary to cross the last fields and orchards of the village, cultivated with old apple trees, and pass through a gorge over a hundred metres deep and two kilometers long, before finally sighting the thousand-year-old sanctuary perched high up on a rock.

At the base of the cliff, the Verdes and Riofreddo streams – which excavated the gorge – tumble, and now accompany the Stations of the Cross, which were erected in 1940, sculpted in white marble from Lasa (near Merano). The ancient trail leading up from the car park to the square of the sanctuary was flagstoned in 1989, while the carriage drive – reserved for service staff and disabled visitors – was paved in the early 1950s.

The square was enlarged in 1859 with the addition of a strong supporting wall. A road also comes down from Coredo and Tavon; however, the last two kilometers are not carriageble. The square at the end of the tarred road allows a view of the bold Gothic lines of the sanctuary, standing like a sentinel upon the rock with its bell tower and elevating the spirit skyward, while the horizontal lines of the building welcome visitors in.

Its mysterious location poses a fascinating but plain question: how did a building such as this come to be erected so high up on a cliff, in such a remote area? The story of the building is soon told: up until 1500 there was only the ancient church with a chapel, now concealed behind the church at the summit; this was followed by the church with the bell tower, and St. George’s Chapel below; then, around 1700, a group of horizontal residential buildings was added: an access way with a courtyard, the rooms above St. George’s Chapel, the Count’s Apartment together with a gallery, the Sacristy, and the Library above it.


The Buildings

The important building works that were carried out in the 1700s gave the entire complex its present-day appearance. The older buildings were demolished and, to better meet the needs of the keeper and pilgrims, the existing residence was added with its stone portal and the statue of San Romedio with the bear, sculpted in 1770 and placed inside the tufa niche. The 16th century wooden crucifix was added in 1913, modifying the eaves of the roof in Tyrolean fashion.

The observant pilgrim will not fail to notice the motto inscribed on the lintel of the portal: a reminder that he is crossing a threshold beyond which the world he enters is something completely different from what he leaves behind. Translated into English, the motto would read as such: “Marvelous feat, oh strange occurrence! The bear, the beast, has become man. But a greater marvel is that he who, born a man, should now seek to become a beast!”.

Upon entering the Renaissance courtyard, one feels almost embraced and carried up by the two strong arms, while a long flight of steps, built in 1864, leads the way up. Looking around, it is then possible to admire the stone archways, the Renaissance portico built in 1729, the Crucifix in front of St. George’s Chapel and the coats of arms of the Counts of Cles and the Fuchs family. The residential apartment above was built in 1768.

The cobblestone paving of the courtyard continues with three large steps and 10 smaller ones leading up to the entrance arch of the holy place, built in 1770, with four stone columns bearing an arch that carries the emblems of San Romedio, his companions Abraham and David, and the local martyrs Sisinius, Martiryum and Alexander.


The Chapels and the Churches

Passing under the arch, the most recent addition stands on the left: the Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows, consecrated only in 1923 after the First World War; a niche on the right contains a group of wooden statues. To the right of the arch is St. George’s Chapel, which prior to the addition of a storey in 1768 was open on both sides and divided by a column on the corner. It marked the start of a path followed by the pilgrims, who were guided on their way by glimpses of the figures of St. George receiving the shield from the angel to slay the dragon and, below, some scenes of his martyrdom.

These frescoes are all by an unknown artist of the 15th century, while those on the cross vault were redone and portray the four symbols of the evangelists and the figures of the four Doctors of the Western Church: St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Gregory the Great and St. Ambrose. The small decorated wooden altar (1607) was commissioned by Count Aliprando of Cles. The altarpiece portrays the Crowning of the Virgin Mary by the Trinity above and, underneath, St. George without a horse slaying the dragon, St. Michael the Archangel and San Romedio with a bear.

At the eighty-eighth step there is the entrance to the church of St. Michael the Archangel; the church – a characteristic chapel of counts and barons – is decorated with ribs and the coats of arms of the Counts of Thun. The Renaissance arch underneath the window was the original entrance way to the church, and contained a Crucifixion group.

In 1725 the steps of the sanctuary were deviated completely to the right and a two-story apartment with gallery was added. The decorative frescoes, in the Renaissance style, are the work of Adriano Mair (1584), while the wooden altar painted to resemble marble is a Baroque piece. On the sides of the altar there are the wooden statues of San Romedio with the Bear and St. Francis with the Wolf (1756). The paintings along the walls, depicting the fourteen Stations of the Cross, are the work of a local artist.

The Church of Saint Romedio, also known as the ‘large church’, stands on the summit and contains the chapel with the relics of San Romedio the Hermit. Built in 1536 by the Counts of Thun, it is irregular in shape and embraces a large area in front of the ancient church or mausoleum, while the outside blends harmoniously with the rest of the complex.

Originally dedicated to St. Massenzia, in 1695 the church was dedicated to the Deposition instead, in honour of the Veronese-school painting that until 1905 towered above the main altar (the painting can now be found above the sacristy door). The wooden altar is a Baroque piece dated 1715; on the sides of the altar are two statues of Abraham and David, said to have been the companions and disciples of San Romedio. The cycle of frescoes portraying the saints and Our Lady of the Annunciation and the Assumption is by an unknown artist, and dates 1612. A grating on the floor allows a view of the cave where San Romedio is said to have lived with his two companions.


The Shrines Along the Ascent

Built in 1707 and containing wooden statues, the seven shrines represent the labour of those who ascend the “steps of life”. The reflection begins with a ‘memento mori’ situated under an ancient clock. The other powerful motto (‘Pilgrim, why have you come?’) recalls the one inscribed on the wall of the olive garden shrine (in Latin). Above the first landing is the scene of Jesus condemned.

Another shrine represents Jesus being beaten with a stick (notice how the soldiers are not Romans but dark-skinned ‘Moors’ – a reminder of the religious climate in Europe following the Venetian victory at Lepanto in 1471). Continuing, there are three other shrines (‘Jesus is mocked while wearing a crown of thorns’; ‘Jesus carrying the cross’; ‘Jesus crucified’).

Upon entering the church of San Romedio, Jesus’ dead body can be glimpsed in the darkness, as if from inside a tomb, underneath the arched window. The stations of the cross do not end here: a fresco portraying the glory of the Resurrection hangs from the ceiling, and born from this faith is the community of believers depicted in the portraits of Our Lady of the Annunciation, Our Lady of the Assumption, and the Apostles.


The Heart of the Sanctuary

The rather narrow entrance-way – made up of seven steps – is given a solemn aspect by the magnificent Romanesque portal, commissioned around 1200. Built from stones cut to size on site, it is asymmetrical with regular disparities (red stones and green stones, with whiter stones above them; a green column and a red column; curved and pointed bases; identical capitals positioned differently).

In the lunette, an interesting Medieval Crucifix can be seen. The architrave has three sides sculpted in high-relief, depicting a sun and a cross. On the right of the entrance there is the ‘scroll of the law’; on the left, the eagle of the patron’s coat of arms, and an ancient Nativity scene rediscovered in 1977.

Above there is a reclining Madonna, at the centre a vine shoot with a bunch of grapes (symbolizing fertility), and underneath the Child inside the manger, with an oversized head. On the right of the portal, there is a 12th century Romanesque fresco, discovered in 1932 after the overlying frescoes were removed; it depicts a 'Last Supper' and a 'Holy Queen enthroned with the Child on her lap'.

The other superimposed frescoes are: a 'Madonna with Child' and a 'Last Supper' from the 13th or 14th century, a 'Saint Romedio and Companions' of the 15th century and then an apostle dating 1612, like the rest of the church.

Upon entering the ancient church one reaches the summit of the rock: here San Romedio is said to have dwelled, and to have built a shrine or small church, or at least placed a cross, and here he was buried, and his disciples are said to have built this ancient church, quadrangular in shape, probably on the site of an ancient Pagan building.

The place, originally dedicated to St. Nicholas, is now called the church of St. Vigilio; it contains an altar with recent wooden carvings, a stone altar-table and a frontal with a high-relief carving of San Romedio and the bear (17th century); a series of frescoes up on the wall tell the story of the saint, placing him in the 4th century.

At the start of the series, above the entrance to the shrine, the Trinity with St. Vigilio on the left and St. Anthony the Abbot on the right (1612) can be found. On the wall toward the chapel, bottom right, visitors can make out a Crucifixion and a Deposition in the tomb, and to the left, the souls of the Purgatory with flames (12th century) can be seen.

The Chapel of the Holy Relics is very small and contains the mortal remains of the Hermit saint. In 1120, the relics of San Romedio were removed from the tomb and displayed inside the urn, then placed in the chapel prepared for that purpose with a small altar, capital columns and a baldachin – all made of stone (for protection against fire).

The chapel was also decorated with some frescoes: the 'Pious women at the tomb' and the 'Incredulous St. Thomas'; the 'Sturgeon and the pistrix' and 'Two marine monsters engaged in battle': in this fresco, that represents the eternal battle of good and evil, one monster is armed with a snake and holds a mirror with horse’s hooves as a shield, while the other is armed with a fish (the symbol of Christ), holding as a shield an hourglass with rooster’s legs.


The Rhaetic Museum

Centre for the Archaeology and Ancient History of the Val di Non (Anaunia) – Sanzeno

The Rhaetic Museum is situated along the National Road of the Val di Non in an area known as Casalini – a location which is particularly significant for the history of archaeology in the valley, strategic also as it situated at the beginning of the trail leading towards San Romedio.

Indeed, in the 1920s and 1950s the first important excavations (archaeological digs) were carried out here, bringing the Val di Non ingeneral and the town of Sanzeno in particular to the attention of the international scientific community. The building – designed by the Trento architect Sergio Giovanazzi in clear deconstructionist style – offers permanent displays relating to the rich local archaeological heritage. In the interior, there are also videos, meeting and conference rooms, spaces dedicated to temporary exhibitions, educational activities and laboratories; a disjointed branch of the “Pia Laviosa Zambotti Archaeological Library” in Trento is also hosted here, together with a large external area dedicated to experimental archaeology.

Inside the museum it is possible to visit the “Ancient Sanzeno” exhibition too, which illustrates the history of archaeological research carried out in the area from the 19th century to the present day. The building is situated at the start of the nature trail into the fascinating gorge that leads to the Sanctuary of San Romedio, which starts just across the road.     

The displays

The displays here wind their way through chronological periods and thematic areas of particular significance, following an evocative itinerary which accompanies the visitor on an imaginary journey through time, from Prehistory to the Early Middle Ages.  

With the aid of technological and multimedia resources, the museum presents a succession of evidence relating to the Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, the first Neolithic farmers, the metal workers of the Copper Age and sites of worship dating back to the Bronze Age. An important role is reserved to evidence regarding the Rhaetic people, known mainly through Roman sources, and the museum presents a wide range of material related to their culture: magnificent artistic items, objects linked to worship, working tools and simple everyday objects.

The various stages of Romanisation of the valley can be followed in the museum too, marked by the realisation of statues, rich funeral objects, epigraphic documentation and evidence of the new cults coming from the East. Finally, the tragic episode which saw the death of the three Anaunia martyrs, preceding the definitive establishment of Christianity, is also recalled.

The evocative and interesting set up of the museum, planned by the Turin architect Maurizio Buffa; the display of findings brought to light over decades of research or handed over by private individuals following chance discoveries; the images and sounds reproduced: all this comes together to create an exciting journey through time and memory, suspended between past and present, allowing a chance to re-discover this ancient people's roots.      

The Rhaetic Museum is open from the 20th June to the 20th September, Tuesday to Sunday 10 to 18; from 21st September to 30th November and from 1st March to the 19th June it is open only Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays, 14 to 18.  


Return from San Romedio to Trentino

Return from San Romedio to Italy-Tours-in-Nature

New! Comments

Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below.