The Slovenia Times

Calvary, a landmark and place for contemplation

The Šmarje pri Jelšah Calvary. Photo: Bor Slana/STA

Paths zigzagging up a hill from one little chapel representing the suffering of Jesus to another make a familiar landmark in many parts of Slovenia. The best known calvary is that of Šmarje pri Jelšah in the east of the country, which attracts 10,000 visitors a year.

An open-air representation of the scenes of the Passion, calvary is different from the Stations of the Cross, which as a rule feature 14 images. Calvaries have any number of stations, but they are all based on the sorrowful part of the Rosary, says Vlasta Kramperšek Šuc, a guide to the Šmarje Baroque Museum.

Calvaries are an important part of Slovenia's cultural heritage. Apart from their artistic and historical value, they are also an important feature of the Slovenian landscape and testify to the religiousness and piety of Slovenians throughout history, says Lilijana Urlep from the Maribor Archdiocese Archives.

Drawing pilgrims for centuries, calvaries remain a centre of spirituality for many believers to this day. They are also important as tourist sights and hiking spots.

Largest open-air Passion complex

The Šmarje Calvary is the most extensive Baroque open-air Passion complex in Slovenia and the best preserved calvary in the country, Kramperšek Šuc says.

It features 14 chapels with 43 statues inside. Today, these are replicas, while the entire collection of restored original wooden Baroque sculptures is kept by the Baroque Museum at the foot of the calvary. The groups of sculptures in the larger chapels are complemented by wall and ceiling frescoes.

As the visitor climbs the path between the chapels, they can see only as far as the next stop and so they have no sense of how much further they have to go. The layout is arranged in such a way as to create a kind of theatre-like backdrop.

Commissioned by the parish priest, mathematician and clockmaker Matej Vrečer, the calvary was built in 1753 to link the parish Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in the town centre and the pilgrimage church of Saint Rocco on the hilltop above Šmarje. It gave the town its distinctive appearance.

Unique iconography

Apart from traditional Passion stations, the Šmarje Calvary includes some iconographically inappropriate and even chronologically misplaced stations. This calvary evades classification into any of the four typologies developed by the Polish researcher Elzbieta Bilska-Wodecka after analysing a sample of 600 European calvaries.

"It is obvious that the iconography of the stations of the Šmarje Calvary, which complement the story of the sorrowful part of the Rosary, is linked to local tradition and, above all, to Vrečer's desire to attract as many pilgrims to Šmarje as possible," Kramperšek Šuc explains.

The first such example is the first chapel, which is dedicated to Saint Rocco, known as the protector against the plague. He is portrayed as a statue as well as in a fresco on the ceiling.

"The memory of the plague that ravaged Šmarje around 1645 was obviously still so vivid at the time that alongside the votive church at the top of the hill, the intercessor against the plague should also get the first chapel of the calvary," Kramperšek Šuc says.

The 11th chapel, called Jesus in Sorrow, depicts the so-called Croatian Jesus. It is an image of Christ sitting up, supporting his head, which was a very popular motif among Croatian artists.

"With this iconographic motif, Vrečer must have sought to attract pilgrims from nearby Croatia, a thesis supported by archival materials that testify to large numbers of pilgrims from the Croatian Zagorje region visiting Šmarje at the time."

The last chapel is famous for its sacred staircase with the Holy Sepulchre, which leads to the statue of the dead Jesus on the scaffold. There are only seven such staircases in Slovenia, the oldest of which is in Šmarje pri Jelšah.

Feast of Assumption biggest crowd-puller

During the Baroque period calvaries drew up to five times as many pilgrims as pilgrimage sites with older traditions. Records show that the Catholic Church examiner counted 12,000 pilgrims in Šmarje on the Feast of the Assumption as the main pilgrimage feast on 15 and 16 August in 1760.

Even today, the calvary and the Church of St Rocco get the most visitors on 15 and 16 August. They number several thousand, but not nearly as many as 260 years ago. Kramperšek Šuc estimates that around 10,000 people visit the calvary every year. Many also visit the Baroque Museum.

There are several other calvaries around the country, in particular in the northeastern region of Štajerska. One of those is the Calvary at Saint Barbara near Maribor, which had for centuries been known as the German Calvary, and another is the calvary up the Pekrska Gorca hill, which was also known as the Slovenian Calvary.

The one closest to Ljubljana is the calvary up the remains of Smlednik Castle. Built in 1772 in Baroque style, it features 14 chapels laid out on the axis between the castle and the Sign of the Blood in the field, which is located on the spot of a former provincial scaffold. The calvary was restored and illuminated in 2001.


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