ONE CANNOT WALK in South Tyrol without encountering a wayside shrine. Whether haunting you from the shadows of a forest or enchanting you from a snow-kissed summit, these tenderly crafted works of sacred art are always worth pausing your stride to admire their beauty.
You are, after all, in a land of endearing traditions. And a visit to South Tyrol barely touches the region’s wonders if you only come for the natural splendor.
In fact, culturally-curious souls will find the enduring preservation of South Tyrol’s Alpine roots one of its most charming aspects. When you spend a day on a trail experiencing such hallowed sights, they are as moving as the sweeping mountain vistas.
The First Wayside Shrines
How did wayside shrines come to grace the valleys and mountainside of South Tyrol? Wayside shrines arose through a custom born in Christianity’s earliest years. Ancient Rome’s persecution of the first Christians made the open construction of churches virtually impossible. Countless early Christians met their end at the edge of a gladiator sword or the jaws of a lion.
In place of churches, the faithful erected small monuments with cryptic Christian symbols to conceal worship from Roman soldiers. These hidden “signposts” became the earliest Christian shrines.
When Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman emperor, decriminalized Christianity in 313 A.D. by issuing the Edict of Milan, mass persecution of Christians ended. Churches sprung up across Catholic Europe and the tradition of hidden shrines evolved into open illuminations of faith.
With South Tyrol’s position in the Alps, the land became a bridge so to speak for Christians traveling between northern and southern Europe. Pilgrims would frequently cross over the mountainous landscape where they could encounter danger at any turn.
Wayside shrines were welcome sights to those who made the road their home. Not only did they serve a spiritual purpose, but also as markers to religious sites such as the Abbey of Novacella (Neustift Monastery). This ancient monastery is nestled near Brixen, South Tyrol’s oldest town, and is one of the oldest wineries in the world.
Each Path its Wayside Shrine
There is something almost romantic about South Tyrol’s wayside shrines as author John L. Stoddard noted more than 100 years ago:
Each vineyard has its crucifix, each path its wayside shrine,
Where flowers adorn the Virgin’s brow, and crown the Child divine;
And few will pass those sacred spots without a lifted eye,
A crossing of the weary breast, a prayer, — at least a sigh.
Whether we’re hiking a high mountain trail or meandering along a path in a valley, we always find them a delightful surprise. They seem to welcome you out of nowhere — poetically watching over the trail. Inviting a moment of prayer or reflection.
Set along paths, roads and nestled in village nooks, South Tyrol’s wayside shrines come in countless shapes and sizes. No matter how big or small, simple or elaborate, local residents take great care to beautifully harmonize them with the natural surroundings.
Each is tenderly crafted from wood or stone. And within many, you’ll find a crucifix or an image of the Madonna hauntingly expressed in various artistic forms.
Some also bear rosaries, photographs and other thoughtfully-carved prayers and blessings. The faithful will even keep candles burning, softly lighting all that the shrine holds. Quite often native flowers spring from the foot of shrines intimately binding them with heaven and earth.
Finding the Shrines of South Tyrol
Whether your South Tyrolean adventures carry you to the lofty heights of the Alps or through the bountiful orchards flourishing within valleys, you’ll come across shrines and crucifixes. Some of our favorites are along South Tyrol’s Waalwegs, ancient water channels that weave throughout the mountains and vineyards bestowing pure Alpine water from snow-capped peaks.
But where wayside shrines enthrall us the most is in the Dolomites. The sight of a wayside shrine against a backdrop of towering stone spires breaking into the Alpine sky is breathtaking. Whether trekking to Seceda or meandering across the prairies of Alpe di Siusi, several notable wayside shrines crown the paths.
Even if your feet never leave the cobblestone streets of the many villages and hamlets sprinkled throughout the region, wayside shrines can often be found next to age-old churches and fanciful gardens of local residents. Many homeowners also enrich the exterior of their homes with a wayside shrine near an entrance.
The wide array of wayside shrines in South Tyrol create fantastic moments to capture with your camera. South Tyrol’s mountains express many moods giving photography enthusiasts the ultimate canvas to work on. We particularly enjoy coming across shrines early in the morning when clouds are beginning to lift off the timbered slopes.
Bringing the Wayside Shrine Tradition to Your Home
You don’t have to be religious or spiritual to find South Tyrol’s wayside shrines captivating. When you unexpectedly encounter one set among vines in a steep vineyard or deep within an Alpine forest, taking a moment to admire its beauty and the soulful devotion of the locals who safeguard the shrine is a reward unto itself.
For those who want to bring the enchanting sight of a wayside shrine to their home or garden, we have partnered with Holyart in Italy to offer wayside shrines from South Tyrol’s Val Gardena through Throne & Vine. These authentic wayside shrines are made from wood such as spruce and larch. Multiple styles are available starting at $63.00.
Many woodcarving shops located throughout the villages of Ortisei, Selva di Val Gardena and S. Christina in Val Gardena offer wayside shrines for sale. These cozy shops will give you plenty of garden shrine ideas as well as ones ready to be hung on a wall within your home. Thankfully, fitting one in your suitcase is not an issue. Most shops will package and ship them abroad.
Beyond shrines, the shops also sell countless other carvings from curious figurines to life-size statues that beautify some of the world’s most celebrated cathedrals. The artwork on display rivals that of a museum. Well worth a visit even if you do not intend to bring home a wayside shrine.
If you came across this article without knowing much about South Tyrol, take the time to discover what we consider Italy’s best-kept secret. Whether passing by a wayside shrine along a mountain trail or savoring authentic Alpine wine and cuisine from a local farm, the traditions of South Tyrol inspire a deep affection for the land and its people. A trip to this hidden gem in northern Italy stays with you for life.