Art In The Valley Of Saas by Samuel Butler

Story type: Essay

Art In The Valley Of Saas{11}

Having been told by Mr. Fortescue, of the British Museum, that there were some chapels at Saas-Fee which bore analogy to those at Varallo, described in my book “Ex Voto,” {12} I went to Saas during this last summer, and venture now to lay my conclusions before the reader.

The chapels are fifteen in number, and lead up to a larger and singularly graceful one, rather more than half-way between Saas and Saas-Fee. This is commonly but wrongly called the chapel of St. Joseph, for it is dedicated to the Virgin, and its situation is of such extreme beauty–the great Fee glaciers showing through the open portico–that it is in itself worth a pilgrimage. It is surrounded by noble larches and overhung by rock; in front of the portico there is a small open space covered with grass, and a huge larch, the stem of which is girt by a rude stone seat. The portico itself contains seats for worshippers, and a pulpit from which the preacher’s voice can reach the many who must stand outside. The walls of the inner chapel are hung with votive pictures, some of them very quaint and pleasing, and not overweighted by those qualities that are usually dubbed by the name of artistic merit. Innumerable wooden and waxen representations of arms, legs, eyes, ears and babies tell of the cures that have been effected during two centuries of devotion, and can hardly fail to awaken a kindly sympathy with the long dead and forgotten folks who placed them where they are.

The main interest, however, despite the extreme loveliness of the St. Mary’s Chapel, centres rather in the small and outwardly unimportant oratories (if they should be so called) that lead up to it. These begin immediately with the ascent from the level ground on which the village of Saas-im-Grund is placed, and contain scenes in the history of the Redemption, represented by rude but spirited wooden figures, each about two feet high, painted, gilt, and rendered as life-like in all respects as circumstances would permit. The figures have suffered a good deal from neglect, and are still not a little misplaced. With the assistance, however, of the Rev. E. J. Selwyn, English Chaplain at Saas-im-Grund, I have been able to replace many of them in their original positions, as indicated by the parts of the figures that are left rough-hewn and unpainted. They vary a good deal in interest, and can be easily sneered at by those who make a trade of sneering. Those, on the other hand, who remain unsophisticated by overmuch art-culture will find them full of character in spite of not a little rudeness of execution, and will be surprised at coming across such works in a place so remote from any art- centre as Saas must have been at the time these chapels were made. It will be my business therefore to throw what light I can upon the questions how they came to be made at all, and who was the artist who designed them.

The only documentary evidence consists in a chronicle of the valley of Saas written in the early years of this century by the Rev. Peter Jos. Ruppen, and published at Sion in 1851. This work makes frequent reference to a manuscript by the Rev. Peter Joseph Clemens Lommatter, cure of Saas-Fee from 1738 to 1751, which has unfortunately been lost, so that we have no means of knowing how closely it was adhered to. The Rev. Jos. Ant. Ruppen, the present excellent cure of Saas-im-Grund, assures me that there is no reference to the Saas-Fee oratories in the “Actes de l’Eglise” at Saas, which I understand go a long way back; but I have not seen these myself. Practically, then, we have no more documentary evidence than is to be found in the published chronicle above referred to.

We there find it stated that the large chapel, commonly, but as above explained, wrongly called St. Joseph’s, was built in 1687, and enlarged by subscription in 1747. These dates appear on the building itself, and are no doubt accurate. The writer adds that there was no actual edifice on this site before the one now existing was built, but there was a miraculous picture of the Virgin placed in a mural niche, before which the pious herdsmen and devout inhabitants of the valley worshipped under the vault of heaven. {13} A miraculous (or miracle-working) picture was always more or less rare and important; the present site, therefore, seems to have been long one of peculiar sanctity. Possibly the name Fee may point to still earlier Pagan mysteries on the same site.

As regards the fifteen small chapels, the writer says they illustrate the fifteen mysteries of the Psalter, and were built in 1709, each householder of the Saas-Fee contributing one chapel. He adds that Heinrich Andenmatten, afterwards a brother of the Society of Jesus, was an especial benefactor or promoter of the undertaking. One of the chapels, the Ascension (No. 12 of the series), has the date 1709 painted on it; but there is no date on any other chapel, and there seems no reason why this should be taken as governing the whole series.

Over and above this, there exists in Saas a tradition, as I was told immediately on my arrival, by an English visitor, that the chapels were built in consequence of a flood, but I have vainly endeavoured to trace this story to an indigenous source.

The internal evidence of the wooden figures themselves–nothing analogous to which, it should be remembered, can be found in the chapel of 1687–points to a much earlier date. I have met with no school of sculpture belonging to the early part of the eighteenth century to which they can be plausibly assigned; and the supposition that they are the work of some unknown local genius who was not led up to and left no successors may be dismissed, for the work is too scholarly to have come from any one but a trained sculptor. I refer of course to those figures which the artist must be supposed to have executed with his own hand, as, for example, the central figure of the Crucifixion group and those of the Magdalene and St. John. The greater number of the figures were probably, as was suggested to me by Mr. Ranshaw, of Lowth, executed by a local woodcarver from models in clay and wax furnished by the artist himself. Those who examine the play of line in the hair, mantle, and sleeve of the Magdalene in the Crucifixion group, and contrast it with the greater part of the remaining draperies, will find little hesitation in concluding that this was the case, and will ere long readily distinguish the two hands from which the figures have mainly come. I say “mainly,” because there is at least one other sculptor who may well have belonged to the year 1709, but who fortunately has left us little. Examples of his work may perhaps be seen in the nearest villain with a big hat in the Flagellation chapel, and in two cherubs in the Assumption of the Virgin.

See also  The Toy Theatre by G. K. Chesterton

We may say, then, with some certainty, that the designer was a cultivated and practised artist. We may also not less certainly conclude that he was of Flemish origin, for the horses in the Journey to Calvary and Crucifixion chapels, where alone there are any horses at all, are of Flemish breed, with no trace of the Arab blood adopted by Gaudenzio at Varallo. The character, moreover, of the villains is Northern–of the Quentin Matsys, Martin Schongauer type, rather than Italian; the same sub- Rubensesque feeling which is apparent in more than one chapel at Varallo is not less evident here–especially in the Journey to Calvary and Crucifixion chapels. There can hardly, therefore, be a doubt that the artist was a Fleming who had worked for several years in Italy.

It is also evident that he had Tabachetti’s work at Varallo well in his mind. For not only does he adopt certain details of costume (I refer particularly to the treatment of soldiers’ tunics) which are peculiar to Tabachetti at Varallo, but whenever he treats a subject which Tabachetti had treated at Varallo, as in the Flagellation, Crowning with Thorns, and Journey to Calvary chapels, the work at Saas is evidently nothing but a somewhat modified abridgement of that at Varallo. When, however, as in the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Crucifixion, and other chapels, the work at Varallo is by another than Tabachetti, no allusion is made to it. The Saas artist has Tabachetti’s Varallo work at his finger-ends, but betrays no acquaintance whatever with Gaudenzio Ferrari, Gio. Ant. Paracca, or Giovanni D’Enrico.

Even, moreover, when Tabachetti’s work at Varallo is being most obviously drawn from, as in the Journey to Calvary chapel, the Saas version differs materially from that at Varallo, and is in some respects an improvement on it. The idea of showing other horsemen and followers coming up from behind, whose heads can be seen over the crown of the interposing hill, is singularly effective as suggesting a number of others that are unseen, nor can I conceive that any one but the original designer would follow Tabachetti’s Varallo design with as much closeness as it has been followed here, and yet make such a brilliantly successful modification. The stumbling, again, of one horse (a detail almost hidden, according to Tabachetti’s wont) is a touch which Tabachetti himself might add, but which no Saas woodcarver who was merely adapting from a reminiscence of Tabachetti’s Varallo chapel would be likely to introduce. These considerations have convinced me that the designer of the chapels at Saas is none other than Tabachetti himself, who, as has been now conclusively shown, was a native of Dinant, in Belgium.

The Saas chronicler, indeed, avers that the chapels were not built till 1709–a statement apparently corroborated by a date now visible on one chapel; but we must remember that the chronicler did not write until a century or so later than 1709, and though, indeed, his statement may have been taken from the lost earlier manuscript of 1738, we know nothing about this either one way or the other. The writer may have gone by the still existing 1709 on the Ascension chapel, whereas this date may in fact have referred to a restoration, and not to an original construction. There is nothing, as I have said, in the choice of the chapel on which the date appears, to suggest that it was intended to govern the others. I have explained that the work is isolated and exotic. It is by one in whom Flemish and Italian influences are alike equally predominant; by one who was saturated with Tabachetti’s Varallo work, and who can improve upon it, but over whom the other Varallo sculptors have no power. The style of the work is of the sixteenth and not of the eighteenth century–with a few obvious exceptions that suit the year 1709 exceedingly well. Against such considerations as these, a statement made at the beginning of this century referring to a century earlier, and a promiscuous date upon one chapel, can carry but little weight. I shall assume, therefore, henceforward, that we have here groups designed in a plastic material by Tabachetti, and reproduced in wood by the best local wood-sculptor available, with the exception of a few figures cut by the artist himself.

We ask, then, at what period in his life did Tabachetti design these chapels, and what led to his coming to such an out-of-the-way place as Saas at all? We should remember that, according both to Fassola and Torrotti (writing in 1671 and 1686 respectively), Tabachetti {14} became insane about the year 1586 or early in 1587, after having just begun the Salutation chapel. I have explained in “Ex Voto” that I do not believe this story. I have no doubt that Tabachetti was declared to be mad, but I believe this to have been due to an intrigue, set on foot in order to get a foreign artist out of the way, and to secure the Massacre of the Innocents chapel, at that precise time undertaken, for Gio. Ant. Paracca, who was an Italian.

Or he may have been sacrificed in order to facilitate the return of the workers in stucco whom he had superseded on the Sacro Monte. He may have been goaded into some imprudence which was seized upon as a pretext for shutting him up; at any rate, the fact that when in 1587 he inherited his father’s property at Dinant, his trustee (he being expressly stated to be “expatrie”) was “datif,” “dativus,” appointed not by himself but by the court, lends colour to the statement that he was not his own master at the time; for in later kindred deeds, now at Namur, he appoints his own trustee. I suppose, then, that Tabachetti was shut up in a madhouse at Varallo for a considerable time, during which I can find no trace of him, but that eventually he escaped or was released.

See also  The Happy Discontent by Richard King

Whether he was a fugitive, or whether he was let out from prison, he would in either case, in all reasonable probability, turn his face homeward. If he was escaping, he would make immediately for the Savoy frontier, within which Saas then lay. He would cross the Baranca above Fobello, coming down on to Ponte Grande in the Val Anzasca. He would go up the Val Anzasca to Macugnaga, and over the Monte Moro, which would bring him immediately to Saas. Saas, therefore, is the nearest and most natural place for him to make for, if he were flying from Varallo, and here I suppose him to have halted.

It so happened that on the 9th of September, 1589, there was one of the three great outbreaks of the Mattmark See that have from time to time devastated the valley of Saas. {15} It is probable that the chapels were decided upon in consequence of some grace shown by the miraculous picture of the Virgin, which had mitigated a disaster occurring so soon after the anniversary of her own Nativity. Tabachetti, arriving at this juncture, may have offered to undertake them if the Saas people would give him an asylum. Here, at any rate, I suppose him to have stayed till some time in 1590, probably the second half of it, his design of eventually returning home, if he ever entertained it, being then interrupted by a summons to Crea near Casale, where I believe him to have worked with a few brief interruptions thenceforward for little if at all short of half a century, or until about the year 1640. I admit, however, that the evidence for assigning him so long a life rests solely on the supposed identity of the figure known as “Il Vecchietto,” in the Varallo Descent from the Cross chapel, with the portrait of Tabachetti himself in the Ecce Homo chapel, also at Varallo.

I find additional reason for thinking the chapels owe their origin to the inundation of September 9, 1589, in the fact that the 8th of September is made a day of pilgrimage to the Saas-Fee chapels throughout the whole valley of Saas. It is true the 8th of September is the festival of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, so that under any circumstances this would be a great day, but the fact that not only the people of Saas, but the whole valley down to Visp, flock to this chapel on the 8th of September, points to the belief that some special act of grace on the part of the Virgin was vouchsafed on this day in connection with this chapel. A belief that it was owing to the intervention of St. Mary of Fee that the inundation was not attended with loss of life would be very likely to lead to the foundation of a series of chapels leading up to the place where her miraculous picture was placed, and to the more special celebration of her Nativity in connection with this spot throughout the valley of Saas. I have discussed the subject with the Rev. Jos. Ant. Ruppen, and he told me he thought the fact that the great fete of the year in connection with the Saas-Fee chapels was on the 8th of September pointed rather strongly to the supposition that there was a connection between these and the recorded flood of September 9, 1589.

Turning to the individual chapels they are as follows:–

1. The Annunciation. The treatment here presents no more analogy to that of the same subject at Varallo than is inevitable in the nature of the subject. The Annunciation figures at Varallo have proved to be mere draped dummies with wooden heads; Tabachetti, even though he did the heads, which he very likely did, would take no interest in the Varallo work with the same subject. The Annunciation, from its very simplicity as well as from the transcendental nature of the subject, is singularly hard to treat, and the work here, whatever it may once have been, is now no longer remarkable.

2. The Salutation of Mary by Elizabeth. This group, again, bears no analogy to the Salutation chapel at Varallo, in which Tabachetti’s share was so small that it cannot be considered as in any way his. It is not to be expected, therefore, that the Saas chapel should follow the Varallo one. The figures, four in number, are pleasing and well arranged. St. Joseph, St. Elizabeth, and St. Zacharias are all talking at once. The Virgin is alone silent.

3. The Nativity is much damaged and hard to see. The treatment bears no analogy to that adopted by Gaudenzio Ferrari at Varallo. There is one pleasing young shepherd standing against the wall, but some figures have no doubt (as in others of the chapels) disappeared, and those that remain have been so shifted from their original positions that very little idea can be formed of what the group was like when Tabachetti left it.

4. The Purification. I can hardly say why this chapel should remind me, as it does, of the Circumcision chapel at Varallo, for there are more figures here than space at Varallo will allow. It cannot be pretended that any single figure is of extraordinary merit, but amongst them they tell their story with excellent effect. Two, those of St. Joseph and St. Anna (?), that doubtless were once more important factors in the drama, are now so much in corners near the window that they can hardly be seen.

5. The Dispute in the Temple. This subject is not treated at Varallo. Here at Saas there are only six doctors now; whether or no there were originally more cannot be determined.

6. The Agony in the Garden. Tabachetti had no chapel with this subject at Varallo, and there is no resemblance between the Saas chapel and that by D’Enrico. The figures are no doubt approximately in their original positions, but I have no confidence that I have rearranged them correctly. They were in such confusion when I first saw them that the Rev. E. J. Selwyn and myself determined to rearrange them. They have doubtless been shifted more than once since Tabachetti left them. The sleeping figures are all good. St. James is perhaps a little prosaic. One Roman soldier who is coming into the garden with a lantern, and motioning silence with his hand, does duty for the others that are to follow him. I should think more than one of these figures is actually carved in wood by Tabachetti, allowance being made for the fact that he was working in a material with which he was not familiar, and which no sculptor of the highest rank has ever found congenial.

See also  Anchorite by Randall Garrett

7. The Flagellation. Tabachetti has a chapel with this subject at Varallo, and the Saas group is obviously a descent with modification from his work there. The figure of Christ is so like the one at Varallo that I think it must have been carved by Tabachetti himself. The man with the hooked nose, who at Varallo is stooping to bind his rods, is here upright: it was probably the intention to emphasise him in the succeeding scenes as well as this, in the same way as he has been emphasised at Varallo, but his nose got pared down in the cutting of later scenes, and could not easily be added to. The man binding Christ to the column at Varallo is repeated (longo intervallo) here, and the whole work is one inspired by that at Varallo, though no single figure except that of the Christ is adhered to with any very great closeness. I think the nearer malefactor, with a goitre, and wearing a large black hat, is either an addition of the year 1709, or was done by the journeyman of the local sculptor who carved the greater number of the figures. The man stooping down to bind his rods can hardly be by the same hand as either of the two black-hatted malefactors, but it is impossible to speak with certainty. The general effect of the chapel is excellent, if we consider the material in which it is executed, and the rudeness of the audience to whom it addresses itself.

8. The Crowning with Thorns. Here again the inspiration is derived from Tabachetti’s Crowning with Thorns at Varallo. The Christs in the two chapels are strikingly alike, and the general effect is that of a residuary impression left in the mind of one who had known the Varallo Flagellation exceedingly well.

9. Sta. Veronica. This and the next succeeding chapels are the most important of the series. Tabachetti’s Journey to Calvary at Varallo is again the source from which the present work was taken, but, as I have already said, it has been modified in reproduction. Mount Calvary is still shown, as at Varallo, towards the left-hand corner of the work, but at Saas it is more towards the middle than at Varallo, so that horsemen and soldiers may be seen coming up behind it–a stroke that deserves the name of genius none the less for the manifest imperfection with which it has been carried into execution. There are only three horses fully shown, and one partly shown. They are all of the heavy Flemish type adopted by Tabachetti at Varallo. The man kicking the fallen Christ and the goitred man (with the same teeth missing), who are so conspicuous in the Varallo Journey to Calvary, reappear here, only the kicking man has much less nose than at Varallo, probably because (as explained) the nose got whittled away and could not be whittled back again. I observe that the kind of lapelled tunic which Tabachetti, and only Tabachetti, adopts at Varallo, is adopted for the centurion in this chapel, and indeed throughout the Saas chapels this particular form of tunic is the most usual for a Roman soldier. The work is still a very striking one, notwithstanding its translation into wood and the decay into which it has been allowed to fall; nor can it fail to impress the visitor who is familiar with this class of art as coming from a man of extraordinary dramatic power and command over the almost impossible art of composing many figures together effectively in all-round sculpture. Whether all the figures are even now as Tabachetti left them I cannot determine, but Mr. Selwyn has restored Simon the Cyrenian to the position in which he obviously ought to stand, and between us we have got the chapel into something more like order.

10. The Crucifixion. This subject was treated at Varallo not by Tabachetti but by Gaudenzio Ferrari. It confirms therefore my opinion as to the designer of the Saas chapels to find in them no trace of the Varallo Crucifixion, while the kind of tunic which at Varallo is only found in chapels wherein Tabachetti worked again appears here. The work is in a deplorable state of decay. Mr. Selwyn has greatly improved the arrangement of the figures, but even now they are not, I imagine, quite as Tabachetti left them. The figure of Christ is greatly better in technical execution than that of either of the two thieves; the folds of the drapery alone will show this even to an unpractised eye. I do not think there can be a doubt but that Tabachetti cut this figure himself, as also those of the Magdalene and St. John, who stand at the foot of the cross. The thieves are coarsely executed, with no very obvious distinction between the penitent and the impenitent one, except that there is a fiend painted on the ceiling over the impenitent thief. The one horse introduced into the composition is again of the heavy Flemish type adopted by Tabachetti at Varallo. There is great difference in the care with which the folds on the several draperies have been cut, some being stiff and poor enough, while others are done very sufficiently. In spite of smallness of scale, ignoble material, disarrangement and decay, the work is still striking.

11. The Resurrection. There being no chapel at Varallo with any of the remaining subjects treated at Saas, the sculptor has struck out a line for himself. The Christ in the Resurrection Chapel is a carefully modelled figure, and if better painted might not be ineffective. Three soldiers, one sleeping, alone remain. There were probably other figures that have been lost. The sleeping soldier is very pleasing.

See also  How Mr. Rabbit Succeeded In Raising A Dust by Joel Chandler Harris

12. The Ascension is not remarkably interesting; the Christ appears to be, but perhaps is not, a much more modern figure than the rest.

18. The Descent of the Holy Ghost. Some of the figures along the end wall are very good, and were, I should imagine, cut by Tabachetti himself. Those against the two side walls are not so well cut.

14. The Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The two large cherubs here are obviously by a later hand, and the small ones are not good. The figure of the Virgin herself is unexceptionable. There were doubtless once other figures of the Apostles which have disappeared; of these a single St. Peter (?), so hidden away in a corner near the window that it can only be seen with difficulty, is the sole survivor.

15. The Coronation of the Virgin is of later date, and has probably superseded an earlier work. It can hardly be by the designer of the other chapels of the series. Perhaps Tabachetti had to leave for Crea before all the chapels at Saas were finished.

Lastly, we have the larger chapel dedicated to St. Mary, which crowns the series. Here there is nothing of more than common artistic interest, unless we except the stone altar mentioned in Ruppen’s chronicle. This is of course classical in style, and is, I should think, very good.

Once more I must caution the reader against expecting to find highly-finished gems of art in the chapels I have been describing. A wooden figure not more than two feet high clogged with many coats of paint can hardly claim to be taken very seriously, and even those few that were cut by Tabachetti himself were not meant to have attention concentrated on themselves alone. As mere wood-carving the Saas-Fee chapels will not stand comparison, for example, with the triptych of unknown authorship in the Church of St. Anne at Gliss, close to Brieg. But, in the first place, the work at Gliss is worthy of Holbein himself: I know no wood-carving that can so rivet the attention; moreover it is coloured with water-colour and not oil, so that it is tinted, not painted; and, in the second place, the Gliss triptych belongs to a date (1519) when artists held neither time nor impressionism as objects, and hence, though greatly better than the Saas-Fee chapels as regards a certain Japanese curiousness of finish and naivete of literal transcription, it cannot even enter the lists with the Saas work as regards elan and dramatic effectiveness. The difference between the two classes of work is much that between, say, John Van Eyck or Memling and Rubens or Rembrandt, or, again, between Giovanni Bellini and Tintoretto; the aims of the one class of work are incompatible with those of the other. Moreover, in the Gliss triptych the intention of the designer is carried out (whether by himself or no) with admirable skill; whereas at Saas the wisdom of the workman is rather of Ober-Ammergau than of the Egyptians, and the voice of the poet is not a little drowned in that of his mouthpiece. If, however, the reader will bear in mind these somewhat obvious considerations, and will also remember the pathetic circumstances under which the chapels were designed–for Tabachetti when he reached Saas was no doubt shattered in body and mind by his four years’ imprisonment–he will probably be not less attracted to them than I observed were many of the visitors both at Saas-Grund and Saas-Fee with whom I had the pleasure of examining them.

I will now run briefly through the other principal works in the neighbourhood to which I think the reader would be glad to have his attention directed.

At Saas-Fee itself the main altar-piece is without interest, as also one with a figure of St. Sebastian. The Virgin and Child above the remaining altar are, so far as I remember them, very good, and greatly superior to the smaller figures of the same altar-piece.

At Almagel, an hour’s walk or so above Saas-Grund–a village, the name of which, like those of the Alphubel, the Monte Moro, and more than one other neighbouring site, is supposed to be of Saracenic origin–the main altar-piece represents a female saint with folded arms being beheaded by a vigorous man to the left. These two figures are very good. There are two somewhat inferior elders to the right, and the composition is crowned by the Assumption of the Virgin. I like the work, but have no idea who did it. Two bishops flanking the composition are not so good. There are two other altars in the church: the right-hand one has some pleasing figures, not so the left-hand.

In St. Joseph’s Chapel, on the mule-road between Saas-Grund and Saas-Fee, the St. Joseph and the two children are rather nice. In the churches and chapels which I looked into between Saas and Stalden, I saw many florid extravagant altar-pieces, but nothing that impressed me favourably.

In the parish church at Saas-Grund there are two altar-pieces which deserve attention. In the one over the main altar the arrangement of the Last Supper in a deep recess half-way up the composition is very pleasing and effective; in that above the right-hand altar of the two that stand in the body of the church there are a number of round lunettes, about eight inches in diameter, each containing a small but spirited group of wooden figures. I have lost my notes on these altar-pieces and can only remember that the main one has been restored, and now belongs to two different dates, the earlier date being, I should imagine, about 1670. A similar treatment of the Last Supper may be found near Brieg in the church of Naters, and no doubt the two altar-pieces are by the same man. There are, by the way, two very ambitious altars on either side the main arch leading to the chance in the church at Naters, of which the one on the south side contains obvious reminiscences of Gaudenzio Ferrari’s Sta. Maria frescoes at Varallo; but none of the four altar-pieces in the two transepts tempted me to give them much attention. As regards the smaller altar-piece at Saas-Grund, analogous work may be found at Cravagliana, half-way between Varallo and Fobello, but this last has suffered through the inveterate habit which Italians have of showing their hatred towards the enemies of Christ by mutilating the figures that represent them. Whether the Saas work is by a Valsesian artist who came over to Switzerland, or whether the Cravagliana work is by a Swiss who had come to Italy, I cannot say without further consideration and closer examination than I have been able to give. The altar-pieces of Mairengo, Chiggiogna, and, I am told, Lavertezzo, all in the Canton Ticino, are by a Swiss or German artist who has migrated southward; but the reverse migration was equally common.

See also  The Spell Of The Yosemite by John Burroughs

Being in the neighbourhood, and wishing to assure myself whether the sculptor of the Saas-Fee chapels had or had not come lower down the valley, I examined every church and village which I could hear of as containing anything that might throw light on this point. I was thus led to Vispertimenen, a village some three hours above either Visp or Stalden. It stands very high, and is an almost untouched example of a medieval village. The altar-piece of the main church is even more floridly ambitious in its abundance of carving and gilding than the many other ambitious altar-pieces with which the Canton Valais abounds. The Apostles are receiving the Holy Ghost on the first storey of the composition, and they certainly are receiving it with an overjoyed alacrity and hilarious ecstasy of allegria spirituale which it would not be easy to surpass. Above the village, reaching almost to the limits beyond which there is no cultivation, there stands a series of chapels like those I have been describing at Saas-Fee, only much larger and more ambitious. They are twelve in number, including the church that crowns the series. The figures they contain are of wood (so I was assured, but I did not go inside the chapels): they are life-size, and in some chapels there are as many as a dozen figures. I should think they belonged to the later half of the last century, and here, one would say, sculpture touches the ground; at least, it is not easy to see how cheap exaggeration can sink an art more deeply. The only things that at all pleased me were a smiling donkey and an ecstatic cow in the Nativity chapel. Those who are not allured by the prospect of seeing perhaps the very worst that can be done in its own line, need not be at the pains of climbing up to Vispertimenen. Those, on the other hand, who may find this sufficient inducement will not be disappointed, and they will enjoy magnificent views of the Weisshorn and the mountains near the Dom.

I have already referred to the triptych at Gliss. This is figured in Wolf’s work on Chamonix and the Canton Valais, but a larger and clearer reproduction of such an extraordinary work is greatly to be desired. The small wooden statues above the triptych, as also those above its modern companion in the south transept, are not less admirable than the triptych itself. I know of no other like work in wood, and have no clue whatever as to who the author can have been beyond the fact that the work is purely German and eminently Holbeinesque in character.

I was told of some chapels at Rarogne, five or six miles lower down the valley than Visp. I examined them, and found they had been stripped of their figures. The few that remained satisfied me that we have had no loss. Above Brieg there are two other like series of chapels. I examined the higher and more promising of the two, but found not one single figure left. I was told by my driver that the other series, close to the Pont Napoleon on the Simplon road, had been also stripped of its figures, and, there being a heavy storm at the time, have taken his word for it that this was so.


{11} Published in the Universal Review, November 1890.

{12} Longmans & Co., 1890.

{13} M. Ruppen’s words run: “1687 wurde die Kapelle zur hohen Stiege gebaut, 1747 durch Zusatz vergrossert und 1755 mit Orgeln ausgestattet. Anton Ruppen, ein geschickter Steinhauer mid Maurermeister leitete den Kapellebau, und machte darin das kleinere Altarlein. Bei der hohen Stiege war fruher kein Gebetshauslein; nur ein wunderthatiges Bildlein der Mutter Gottes stand da in einer Mauer vor dem fromme Hirten und viel andachtiges Volk unter freiem Himmel beteten.

“1709 wurden die kleinen Kapellelein die 15 Geheimnisse des Psalters vorstelland auf dem Wege zur hohen Stiege gebaut. Jeder Haushalter des Viertels Fee ubernahm den Bau eines dieser Geheimnisskapellen, und ein besonderer Gutthater dieser frommen Unternehmung war Heinrich Andenmatten, nachher Bruder der Geselischaft Jesu.”

{14} The story of Tabachetti’s incarceration is very doubtful. Cavaliere F. Negri, to whose book on Tabachetti and his work at Crea I have already referred the reader, does not mention it. Tabachetti left his native Dinant in 1585, and from that date until his death in 1615 he appears to have worked chiefly at Varallo and Crea. There is a document in existence stating that in 1588 he executed a statue for the hermitage of S. Rocco, at Crea, which, if it is to be relied on, disposes both of the incarceration and of the visit to Saas. It is possible, however, that the date is 1598, in which case Butler’s theory of the visit to Saas may hold good. In 1590 Tabachetti was certainly at Varallo, and again in 1594, 1599, and 1602. He died in 1615, possibly during a visit to Varallo, though his home at that time was Costigliole, near Asti.–R. A. S.

{15} This is thus chronicled by M. Ruppen: “1589 den 9 September war eine Wassergrosse, die viel Schaden verursachte. Die Thalstrasse, die von den Steinmatten an bis zur Kirche am Ufer der Visp lag, wurde ganz zerstort. Man ward gezwungen eine neue Strasse in einiger Entfernung vom Wasser durch einen alten Fussweg auszuhauen welche vier und einerhalben Viertel der Klafter, oder 6 Schuh und 9 Zoll breit soilte.” (p. 43).]

Leave a Reply 0

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *