Sanctuary of the Madonna degli Alpini

by don Alfonso Rossi

The Sanctuary dedicated to the Madonna of the Alpine troups from Chiesa Valmalenco stands in a splendid scenario of mountains, amidst which soars the pyramid of Pizzo Scalino. Everything recalls the Alpine troups, their world, their great enthusiasm and the painful times for Italy.

As you reach the parvis, you can see how the church fulfils not only a sacred function, but also a civil role. The large square often sees representatives of various Italian and foreign military corps gathered here, standing to attention in front of the monument "to the Alpine soldier of Italy" at the flag-raising ceremony. The monument, built in 1984 according to the design of a local artist, Silvio Gaggi, is made of serpentine stone of the Valmalenco. At the foot of a boulder surmounted by a bronze eagle and the typical soldier's hat, there is a stone and some soil brought from Nikolajewka in 1991 in memory of the tragic, but glorious retreat from Russia.

Beneath the pronaos is a wooden, artistic sculpture, made by the company Sandrini of Ponte di Legno in 1970, which represents Maria with outstretched arms in the act of welcoming the Alpine troops “veci e bocia”, who are grouped in prayer and devotion at her feet.

Entering the majestic church designed by the architects, Mario Ruggeri of Lecco and Mino Fiocchi, we are immediately captivated and attracted by the impressive marble, enamel and gold tesserae of the mosaic in the presbytery, designed by Prof. Antonio Majocchi and made by the company Umberto d’Agnolo of Milan between 1959 and 1963. Maria, dressed in red with a blue cape, is depicted against a gold background (symbol of eternity and holiness) sitting on the throne with baby Jesus in her arms (holding an Edelweiss). He appears to almost escape her hold to be caught by every person ready to catch him. In her right hand Maria is holding a stylised palm, symbol of the eternal prize, destined for those who believe and undertake to defend freedom and carry out humanitarian missions. At her feet is the classic coat of arms of the Alpine troops: an eagle amidst the rocks, ready to take flight and two crossed rifles. A picture of arms is unusual for a place of worship. However, this is immediately offset by two intertwined rainbows, the biblical symbol for the end of the Deluge and the return of peace on earth, which outline the cushion on the throne on which Maria is sitting. A star as a blossoming flower completes the bottom part of the mosaic and recalls what Mgr. Alessandro Macchi, bishop of Como and promotor of the construction of the santuary said when the first stone was laid on 30 April 1944:

Hail Maria, star of the Alpine soldiers, our hope, assist this great enterprise from your seat of glory!

The entire scene is enclosed in an almond-shaped oval (the symbol is taken from oriental art and symbolises completeness and perfection) extending silver and gold rays.

Another evocative reference to the Alpine troops is the precious reliquary placed at the foot of the chapel of the Holy Sacrament with tiny soapstone statues. This is also the work of Silvio Gaggi, created in 1994 and depicting the The Alpine troops in Adoration of Baby Jesus in the arms of Maria. The artist has expertly and realistically carved the tiny statues, representing the Alpine soldiers in various positions. In the foreground, a weary, elderly man holding a pickaxe gazes almost in ecstasy at the Child; another, in the flower of youth, is kneeling and is giving his jacket as a gift. Behind the Virgin Mother, two soldiers are caught up with a mule, also with bended knee as a sign of adoration. Two others, to one side and almost out of sight, are attempting to climb a peak with some difficulty. Among the other little statues is an unusual one of an Alpine soldier crouching and observing the scene from afar through a pair of binoculars: an anachronism certainly, but endearing nevertheless! In the background is a stucco Marinelli hut (the most typical refuge hut in the Valmalenco at 2,813 m) and the impressive Bernina range.

In the Sanctuary, we can admire the excellent eighteenth century paintings of the Via Crucis by the Ligari family, transported from the old parish church of the Saints Giacomo and Filippo.

The final and noisiest (!) reference to the Alpine soldiers is the large bell donated by the Group of Chiesa Valmalenco in 1989, the year the bell tower was built and the bells put into place. The large bell weighs 15 quintals and bears the inscription

May the Madonna of the Alpine soldiers protect and bless the generous hearts of the valiant defenders of the Alps

Some people were annoyed by the sound of the bell. However, during the useless trial against the parish priest at the time, don Giulio Roncan, the Alpine soldiers themselves were the first to defend the Priest, the large bell, common sense and freedom of worship. May its majestic sound now reach the Alpine troops wherever they are and gather them into the sanctuary dedicated to their Madonna. They will feel at home.

The liturgical feast of the Sanctuary is celebrated on 15 August, the religious solemnity of Our Lady of the Assumption in heaven.
Beneath the presbytery with access from behind the church is an artistic nativity scene by Nicola Soccol and Silvio Gaggi, which reconstructs the birth of Christ in the village of Chiesa at the beginning of 1900.