Mountains of Faith: Discover the Wayside Shrines of South Tyrol


Kate + Vin

A wayside shrine on Ape di Siusi near Mt. Schlern
Wayside Shrine Icon

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

A Virgin Mary Shrine in Val di Funes, Italy
Wayside shrines, such as this one in Val di Funes, can be found throughout the Dolomites.

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.

medieval wayside shrine
In this artwork from 1508, pilgrims congregate around a wayside shrine.

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.

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Each Path its Wayside Shrine

A wayside cross near Tre Cime di Lavaredo
A famous wayside cross stands behind the Rifugio Locatelli at Tre Cime di Lavaredo, the symbol of the Dolomites.

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.

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Bildstocks: The Sacred Pillars of South Tyrol

Bildstock in a village in South Tyrol
A Bildstock is another type of wayside shrine that can be found throughout South Tyrol & the Alps.

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.

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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.

Virgin Mary Shrine
Rosaries, photographs and candles decorate many of the wayside shrines you’ll encounter on your hikes.

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.

Deur Sculptures Val Gardena
Woodcarving shops such as DEUR Sculptures are located throughout Val Gardena.

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.


wayside shrines south tyrol
wayside cross tradition
wayside shrine custom

57 thoughts on “Mountains of Faith: Discover the Wayside Shrines of South Tyrol”

  1. So beautiful ! Thank you for sharing your eye and your faith!
    I can’t wait to go ! As soon as we can travel again ! Thank you. Am going to get one for our yard. 💜

    • Thank you Debbie! Wonderful to hear that you plan to visit and will be beautifying your yard with a wayside shrine!!

  2. This is such a picturesque and stunning place. I would love to go there and hike. Are there any good hiking trails?

  3. Each shrine is so distinct and beautiful. I love the way you have composed each image with the background. Lovely post!

  4. These are beautiful!

    Raised Catholic, I have a special love for the symbolism and beauty of it all. You’re right–there isn’t as much religious adornment these days. I have this feeling that we’ll see more of it as we’ve been getting more religious variety. Hopefully the religious iconography of the different religions will empower Christians! Interesting how we’ve moved from hyper religiosity to neutral to now seeing more religions represented.

  5. I’ve never heard of this place before but it looks beautiful. I love discovering new locations and trying new adventures. Will have to add it to my long list!

  6. The crucifix in each vineyard is so exquisite looking. I never seen anything like it. Absolutely love them. Wonderful pictures here. Thank you for sharing ?

  7. I know about Tyrol but had no idea about the shrines! Thanks for sharing this interesting fact, I enjoyed reading it!

  8. I have been to Italy several times but have never heard of this area! I guess I will be making another trip. Thank you so much for such an interesting article.

  9. Some of these are quite spectacular, what a lovely tradition. Would love to visit someday.

  10. I’ve never heard of this place, but I’m glad you put it on my map. The images are really stunning – you have some great skills!

  11. What an evocative piece, thank you for writing about it. Its a small aspect of European life that I’d never heard of.

    • Thanks so much! So many people haven’t heard of it. I hope you have an opportunity to visit someday

  12. The pictures would have been able to tell a great story alone. I would have had no idea about this region had you not shared about it.

  13. These are incredible art works. Even if you´re not religious there is no way to deny the artful look of these cruxifixes. And hey the countryside is at least as beautiful. Thanks for showing us these pieces of art.

  14. I love finding articles like this – a place I’ve never heard about but has so much history and meaning. I’m saving this for future reference. Thank you!

  15. Very Detailed Blog!! I loved the way you have explained everything especially pictures.

  16. I have never heard of this place, so it was such an interesting read. The images in this post were very powerful and beautiful.

  17. Beautifully written, very informative and incredible photographs. Thanks for sharing, I had never even heard of this region. Definitely makes me want to visit!

  18. I love seeing this region through your eyes. I live very close to here, in the German Alps, and we also have a lot of little shrines and altars. I used to say I know how much of my hike is left by how many stations of the cross I’ve gone. Lovely photos and imagery. Thanks for sharing.

  19. What an interesting place to visit. I loved Tyrol but I didn’t know about this place – thanks for sharing!

  20. Woah, never heard of these but they are beautiful and definitely moving shrines. I would definitely like to see these. Thanks for sharing such a unique place!

  21. I tend to be always be more interested in religion and spirituality when I travel to countries that are very different from my own for some reason, but your article showed me once more that there is so much to experience with refers to this in Europe too. It’s been said many times before but I have to point it out once more, your photography is outstanding in this article. Great work!

  22. So hauntingly beautiful. Though I’ve stumbled across shrines in many different countries, I had no idea these existed. Thank you for sharing the background & beauty of these unique pieces of history. Gorgeous photography too!

  23. I second the hauntingly beautiful comment. Shrines in the middle of nature always have a more impressive feel, thank you for letting me know about this place!

  24. Thank you for writing such an informative post about South Tyrol’s wayside shrines! It was really fascinating to read about, and they look absolutely stunning. I would love to see them in person.

  25. Thank you so much fpr sharing a part of Italy that is totally unknow to me. I also love the tour through religion because it is largely neglected in society today. Love remebering the history and importance of religion in centuries gone by and such magnificent statues.

  26. The pictures are so atmospheric. I especially love the first one. An interesting read as I’d never heard of this custom before. Thanks for sharing.

  27. I love this. I love the way you started out your post. I’m from a small state called Goa in India. The Portuguese left us a legacy one that lives on today. A number of small crosses exist on different parts of the state.

  28. That’s pretty surprising for me, I had no idea faith was so present everywhere in South Tyrol. Very interesting article!

  29. These shrines are so beautiful and haunting! I feel like it’s probably a very emotional place to explore, the symbols are just so powerful.

  30. Wow. This is amazing. I have never heard of this area or anywhere like it. Amazing! Thx for sharing!

  31. Wow! So much history! I live near Rome but I must admit I know so little about Roman history… time for me to hit the books! This was a great start! xx

  32. Wow what an amazing place! Scenery and religion in one place. I learnt a lot from this post and will definitely look into going here. Looks like a valuable destination.

  33. Wow that’s amazing! I love the photographs, and the one with the clouds give it a super spooky look.

  34. While reading your post, I felt I was seeing a visual poem. I have not heard about this beautiful place and custom before. Glad I visited your blog. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful post. From now on, I am your latest follower.

    • Thank you so much for the kind words. Glad you enjoyed our post. Thrilled to have you as a follower!

  35. I just love the history behind all of this. The photos are gorgeous! Thanks for sharing.

  36. WOW! What amazing pictures. I love this area but had never heard of these shrines. Quite amazing. Thanks for sharing.

  37. You have absolutely sparked my Intrigue. If I ever make it to Europe this place is definitely on my list now. So beautiful and interested.

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