Wayside shrines adorn the mountains, valleys and villages of South Tyrol. Discover how these sacred works of art beautify the land in subtle and profound ways.
One can not walk in South Tyrol without encountering a wayside shrine (also known as a Wayside Cross, Wegkreuz, Feldkreuz, Marterl and Bildstock). Whether haunting you from the shadows of a forest or enchanting you from a snow-kissed summit, these tenderly crafted creations are always worth pausing your stride to admire.
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 in the Dolomites or elsewhere in the region, experiencing such hallowed sights can be as moving as the sweeping mountain vistas. Many of the crucifixes you encounter are so emotive they seem to concentrate the anguish of the entire world into a single, suffering figure.
The History of Wayside Shrines
How did wayside shrines come to grace the valleys and mountainsides 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.
As time marched on, so did the tradition of erecting a wayside shrine. In the Baroque era, the designs of wayside shrines became more elaborate, often incorporating ornate carvings, gilded details, or detailed statues of Jesus and other religious figures. The custom eventually evolved into a solemn tribute to honor those who met their untimely demise in a tragic mishap. In fact, the word “Marterl” arises from the Greek word “Martyros”, which means martyr. In addition to serving as a memorial, locals also regarded wayside shrines as a place of prayer to ward off future tragedies that may befall their community.
⇒ YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: The Christmas Markets of South Tyrol
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, and 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.
⇒ YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: The Sunken Bell Tower of Curon
Bildstocks: The Sacred Pillars of South Tyrol
Another type of wayside shrine one frequently encounters in South Tyrol is the Bildstock. These sacred pillars are sculpted from stone and often crowned with a stone or wood-shingled roof. Near the top of the Bildstock is a recess adorned with a painting.
The depiction is usually a devotion to a saint or the retelling of the tragedy that inspired its construction. Like wooden wayside shrines, Bildstocks are placed throughout the region. You will find them standing alone in a forest or field or surrounded by the bustle of life in the heart of villages.
Many Bildstocks possess an air of mystery as their paintings have faded over the centuries leaving one to wonder what tale they once told. These monuments, once vital in connecting the present with the past, find their significance decaying each year — transforming them into beautiful curiosities that are always worth pondering when found.
⇒ YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: Sabiona Monastery: Hiking the Holy Mountain of South Tyrol
Finding the Wayside 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 its 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 the valleys with a steady stream of snowmelt from the 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 meadows of Alpe di Siusi, several notable wayside shrines dot the paths.
Even if your feet never leave the cobblestone streets of the countless villages 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. A great way to encounter them in such settings is by hiking the ancient farm trail in Völs am Schlern.
The wide array of wayside shrines in South Tyrol creates 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 a 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, 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.
⇒ Discover more about the woodcarvers of Val Gardena.
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.