The Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso

A fascinating sheer cliff, known as Sasso Ballaro, overlooks the shores of Lake Maggiore. The rock slopes downwards with its two hundred and sixty-eight steps. Suddenly, like an ecstatic revelation, a glimpse of infinite beauty appears. The landscape is majestic, and the mountains are reflected like diamonds in the calm waters of the lake; there appears the prospect of a monastery, seemingly embedded in the rock. This is the Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso in Leggiuno.

Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso
Southern side of the Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso is accessed through a seven-arch portico with an elegant loggia.

The enchanting atmosphere of the monastery, suspended in time and space, has the power to free pilgrims from the anxieties of everyday life, filling the soul with a perception of peace and mystical contemplation.

The Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso’s construction

However, the construction of Santa Caterina Hermitage, in such an impervious place so exposed to the natural rock erosion, appears today as an irrational choice of faith: a place chosen by God for Alberto Besozzi. According to the Christian tradition, the rich merchant from Arolo, given to greed and usury, suddenly encountered a storm while sailing on the Lake. Thus, on that day in 1170 [1] he was shipwrecked, risking his life. At that moment his stony heart broke away from material possessions and he made a desperate appeal to Saint Catherine of Alexandria. We can imagine the surprise when he saw his prayers answered. A sudden ray of sunshine, breaking through the clouds and calming the waters, was indeed a metaphor for his conversion.

Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso
The chapel with the body of Alberto Besozzi, declared blessed by the Catholic Church. It preserves 16th-century frescoes and the miracle of some boulders that detached from the rock wall and remained suspended on the vault.

So Albert decided to abandon his goods and bad habits in order to retire in prayer at the place of redemption, where he had found his salvation. Here the hermit built a chapel dedicated to the saint who had interceded for him.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria

The facts about the life of Saint Catherine of Alexandria are as uncertain as mysterious. They are supported by historical sources from later centuries, including a Passion written in Greek from the 6th-7th centuries. Moreover, many episodes from the life of Saint Catherine are narrated in Medieval manuscripts, such as the Passio sanctae Katherinae Alexandriensis from the 11th century and the Legenda Aurea by Jacopo da Varazze (13th century).

All the stories attest that Saint Catherine lived in Egypt between the 3rd and 4th centuries. Lovely in appearance and mind, nevertheless she did not allow to be seduced by the charms of men, although many desired her. In fact, it is reported that the Virgin Mary, announced her in a dream that she would be married with Christ.

Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso
The Mystical Marriage of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Paolo Veronese, 1575, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice

Her complete abandonment to the love of God led Catherine to renounce the marriage proposal by a Roman emperor, probably Maximinus Daia or Maxentius [2]. When he visited Alexandria in 305, he could not resist the charms of the young woman and her culture. So the Emperor asked a group of rhetoricians to convince the girl to believe in paganism and accept his proposal of marriage. Unexpectedly, Catherine converted the philosophers to Christianity.

Catherine of Alexandria was first sentenced to death on a spiked breaking wheel, but when a lightnening broke the instrument of torture, the Emperor ordered her martyrdom by beheading. To the surprise of those present, some milk began to drip from the lifeless body, testifying to the purity of her soul.

Saint Catherine as Hypatia

An alternative hypothesis, proposed by Anna Jameson and recently echoed by Silvia Ronchey [3], is that Saint Catherine is the same woman as Hypatia. This assumption is based on the fact that both women were martyred because of their beliefs. However, while Catherine was canonised as a saint, it is historically attested that the philosopher and mathematician Hypatia was killed by fanatical Christians in 415 [4].

Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso
Towards the Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso

The monastery of Santa Caterina del Sasso

Documentary sources attesting to the origin of the Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso date back more than a century after the legendary foundation. Moreover, the present monastic complex is larger than the chapel mentioned in the hagiographies of Alberto Besozzi. In fact, it consists of at least three main cult buildings, which incorporate the primitive structure. In 1301, some deeds of land donation to a community of friars mention a church dedicated to St. Nicholao [5].

However, another building known as Santa Maria Nuova was to be built adjacent to St. Nicolao. Finally, a document from 1315 reports a third church “constructa in domo fratrum S. Nicollai de Saxobalaro” dedicated to Saint Catherine [1].

Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso
The vault of the Chapel of St. Nicholas, with a Christ Pantocrator in a mandorla and the symbols of the four evangelists.

The foundation of the monastery and the architectural transformations

By a document in 1334 the archbishop of Milan Aicardo da Camodeia defined a monastic rule for the local confraternity. About forty years later, in 1379, the community of friars adopted the rule of Saint Ambrose ad Nemus, joining the Ambrosian Order until its suppression in 1645.

During this period, the monastery complex of Santa Caterina del Sasso was the subject of an artistic work that led to its current architectural appearance.

In particular, between the mid-16th and early 17th century, all the previous buildings were combined into a single church dedicated to Saint Catherine.

Daniela Campus and Samuele Corrente Naso

Notes

[1] Eremo di Santa Caterina del Sasso, Lombardia beni culturali.

[2] Jacopo da Varazze, Legenda Aurea, 1260-1298.

[3] Anna Jameson, Sacred and Legendary Art, Longmans, London, 1848; Silvia Ronchey, Ipazia, la vera storia, 2010.

[4] Socrate Scolastico, cit., VII, 15.

[5] Roberto Comolli, L’Eremo di S.Caterina sul lago Maggiore, Nicolini Editore, 1997.

error: Eh no!