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A 16c Edicola at Colle Alto di Bovara

[image ALT: At a small crossroads partly shaded by a tall tree, with olive groves behind it and a house or two in the far background, a shrine of rough mortar-sunk stone masonry, about 4 meters tall, 2 meters wide and 70 cm deep, at the end of a stone wall bordering the little road on the right. It consists mostly of a niche recessed under a basket-handle arch, and is roofed with a plain two-sloped tile roof; the interior of the niche is painted, and a small vase of flowers rests on the ledge forming the recess. It is a wayside shrine in Bovara, Umbria (central Italy), described and commented on in detail on this webpage.]

As so often elsewhere, if I'd been zooming thru the landscape in a car, I wouldn't really have seen this: just another one of those little things with roofs that dot the Umbrian countryside; and so, while the driver needs intelligence to spot this and stop, as a pedestrian toting that camera bag I needed none at all. (And this is a small road: if you're just rushing down the highway in a hurry to get somewhere else — there's a big highway just a mile west of here — all the sensitivity in the world will do you no good. Take a hint . . . .)

The roof, in fact, is the tipoff that this is something to see up close; see for example this similar example at Monte­falco, just five kilometers W of us. The more of a roof we see, the more someone thought it needed protection; eventually some of these wayside shrines acquire more roof, and a door, and before you know it we can even have a chapel. The Italian name for a wayside shrine, edicola, is descriptive: it means little building.

[image ALT: A somewhat weathered fresco of the Virgin Mary, seated, holding the Baby Jesus who stands on her right knee, blessing a bearded and haloed man standing near him to his mother's right. Another older man, also bearded, stands on her left. Both hold books. It is a partial view of a wayside shrine in Bovara, Umbria (central Italy), described and commented on in detail on this webpage.]

In this case, a well-preserved fresco of the Virgin Mother and Child, flanked by two saints: the books in their hands mark them as either Apostles or Doctors of the Church; and looking closely, we can see that the older man holds a key, and the other a sword — that long vertical bar ending at his feet — which identify them as St. Peter to the Virgin's left and St. Paul to her right. Peter's features, furthermore, are familiar: he is very often depicted this way, as a bald, thick-set man with a well-cropped white beard.

[image ALT: A deteriorated fresco in a wayside shrine in Bovara, Umbria (central Italy), partly deciphered and commented in the text of this webpage.]
[image ALT: A deteriorated fresco in a wayside shrine in Bovara, Umbria (central Italy), partly deciphered and commented in the text of this webpage.]

The left and right walls of the edicola, being more exposed to weather, have survived less well. The inner saint on each side can still be identified, though: on the right St. Rocco, protector against the plague, is instantly recognizable since he bares his leg. Often paired with him, St. Sebastian, who can, in fact, just barely be made out on the left, stripped and tied to a pillar. (For a somewhat clearer idea of the iconography, see the fresco at S. Niccolò in Matigge, about an hour's walk away.) The outer saints seem unidentifiable: possible guesses would be St. John the Baptist on the left, if we read the lower edge of his clothing as the skin of an animal, or St. Nicholas of Myra if the red object is a purse; and, on the right, just maybe, St. Catherine of Siena; all popular saints in the region, but I'm not very convinced myself.

The vault of the niche is painted also, in imitation of precious marbles; and in imitation of a bossed keystone, the Holy Spirit spreads its wings in a fairly standard "glory" of clouds and light. Light of another kind there once was as well: that's an electric cord dangling, the bulbs now removed. This little shrine is in fact a miniature church: a choir with Mary and Jesus, an altar-like table, side chapels with our four saints, the vault of Heaven above it; and like many churches in the area, fissures in the fabric are very likely evidence of seismic activity, very likely the 1997 earthquake that damaged so many churches in this eastern flank of Umbria, less than a month before I took these pictures.

[image ALT: A painted surface made to look like an assortment of precious marbles: in the center a round boss-like space with a dove, wings outstretched, against a background of stylized clouds or beams of light. It is a detail of a wayside shrine in Bovara, Umbria (central Italy).]

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Page updated: 1 Oct 19