Santa Caterina del Sasso: a Monastery on Lake Maggiore.

Explore the Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso in Leggiuno in the province of Varese. An important religious monument on the eastern shore of Lake Maggiore.
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Explore the Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso in Leggiuno in the province of Varese. An important religious monument on the eastern shore of Lake Maggiore.

Introduction to Santa Caterina del Sasso

The cultural site of Santa Caterina del Sasso in Leggiuno (VA) is a serene place rich in history. It is a monastery that stands on the eastern shore of Lake Maggiore. Its construction dates back to the 12th century and is characterized by its Romanesque style. Built on an overhanging cliff face, the hermitage possesses a very ancient history. The church, convent and bell tower are the most prominent features, which stand out against the backdrop of the beautiful waters of Lake Maggiore. The legend of the construction of the complex is linked to the figure of Alberto Besozzi, a merchant from Arolo , who made a vow to St. Catherine of Alexandria after escaping from a shipwreck while crossing the lake. It is a historical-artistic place of great social value as local citizens and the whole area recognize themselves around the culture and history that the hermitage passes on. In addition, the place is a significant point of tourist attraction: tourists and passersby recognize the validity of the historical-religious site and support it through visits and itineraries dedicated entirely to getting to know the hermitage. Santa Caterina del Sasso di Leggiuno allows one to conduct an unforgettable experience among history, art, architecture, culture, nature and local tradition.

The legend of Alberto Besozzi

The Hermitage complex of Santa Caterina del Sasso is closely connected to the legend and figure of Alberto Besozzi, who allowed its construction in 1170.He was a merchant from Arolo and moneylender of the time who, after escaping from a shipwreck on Lake Maggiore, found refuge in a cave at Santa Caterina del Sasso itself, around 1200. From that time, after making a vow to the saint, Besozzi decided to lead a life of absolute prayer. In addition, he would build a chapel to St. Catherine of Alexandria. He was proclaimed blessed and his remains rest in the church to this day. In detail, the legend of this man tells of a real-life character, who probably lived between the 12th and 14th centuries, and who, after leading his youth in debauchery and vice, became heir to various riches upon the death of his father. After marriage, he became a wealthy and greedy merchant. One day, while on his way back from the market in Lesa, a very violent storm broke out. His boat crashed into the rocky peaks and capsized. Albert was the only survivor and therefore decided to invoke God's mercy through the intercession of St. Catherine. He managed to save himself by clinging to the wall of Sasso Ballaro. He chose to totally change his corrupt life. He became a hermit and retired in poverty near the Sasso, devoting all his time to meditation. Later, about the end of the 1200s, during a severe plague, people turned their prayers to this holy man. Blessed Albert, through his divine grace, obtained the hoped-for help and asked the people to build, as a tribute, the small church dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria. Finally, the church of Santa Maria Nova was built after Besozzi succeeded, thanks to his intercession, in driving away attacks of ravenous wolves.

Architectural wonders

The Santa Caterina del Sasso Monastery complex is based on three main buildings. The first is the entrance body or Southern Convent followed by the Conventino and finally the Church that incorporates the chapel of St. Catherine inside. In addition to these structures, it is also worth mentioning the elevator carved into the rock. The Southern Convent, that is, the building that welcomes us, is characterized in a small atrium with a vaulted roof with small sails. Here, at the top, we can see the remains of a fresco testifying to the figure of Gaspare Rogiati, the first prior of the hermitage, in office from 1304 to 1334. Next, there is what was once the Chapter House: a frescoed Gothic room dating from the early 14th century. The Conventino (13th-14th century), an intermediate place between the Chapter House and the church, housed the kitchen, refectory and cells. A portico, with four pointed arches, decorated with a ''Dance of Death'' was located in this room. Finally, the church, with a Renaissance facade, preserves a cycle of frescoes attributed to one of Bernardino Luini's sons. The present appearance of the complex dates back to the 16th century. The high altar is located to the side of the entrance. At the back of the nave, in the oldest part of the church we find, adorned with 16th-century paintings, the late 13th-century Sacello di Santa Caterina. In general, some rooms correspond to ancient churches including those of San Nicolao, Santa Caterina and Santa Maria Nova. On the outside, to the left of the church, the 12-meter-high 14th-century Romanesque bell tower stands out, overhanging the lake.

St. Catherine's Hermitage today

The Hermitage of Santa Caterina today presents itself protected and enhanced thanks to the efforts related to the restoration and the active role of the Province of Varese, which is committed to its preservation and support. Tourists from all over the world, families, friends and the faithful come to this place especially in the spring and summer seasons to fully savor its atmosphere. Currently, an outstanding new feature of the entire cultural site is the new elevator carved into the rock built with the support of the Province of Varese. This new tool is able to lead visitors to the Hermitage with extreme ease. The work is functional especially for elderly or disabled people, who have the possibility to comfortably overcome the 51-meter difference in height between the square of the Cascine del Quiquio and the actual entrance to the Hermitage. This elevator is an element that makes the Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso an accessible and modern place. The ride shaft was built by excavating a 6-meter diameter shaft in the rock, 51 meters deep and connected to a 45-meter long horizontal exit tunnel to the areas below that opens to the panoramic view of Lake Maggiore. In addition to the elevator, a number of renovations and securing of the entire area on which the Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso stands were put in place. The goal was to achieve the stabilization of the entire rock face above and the consolidation of the foundations of the church and bell tower. Thanks to these interventions, it was possible to manage the precarious stability, due to gravitational movements, that was affecting the entire rocky area between the Hermitage and the lake. Today, the Hermitage thanks to these magnificent engineering works is a cultural and religious point of extreme grandeur and extraordinary uniqueness both culturally and physically.

Visiting Santa Caterina del Sasso

The Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso is located in the province of Varese in Leggiuno at Via Santa Caterina No. 13. An audioguide service is available during the visit. It is also possible to arrange guided tours.

The site can be reached:
  • -BY CAR: from Varese (22 km, SP1 del lago and SS394), from Milan (78 km, highway a8 and a26 exit Vergiate- Sesto Calende ), from Lugano (42 km, Lavena Ponte Tresa pass). Ample parking is available near the ticket office. Usually, most tourists reach St. Catherine's Hermitage by car.
  • -BY BUS: via the public transportation service Autolinee Varesine line No. 18.
  • -BY FERRY/BOAT: from Arona or Stresa with several trips per day according to the timetable of the Lake Maggiore Navigation service.
  • -ON FOOT: from the center of Leggiuno (VA) following Via Santa Caterina No. 13.


  • In general, it is important to remember that this is a cultural and religious site. Therefore, there are rules for visiting the church. In fact, during religious services it is not possible to visit the Church. The religious management of the Hermitage is entrusted to the Franciscan Fraternity of Bethany. Access to the Church exclusively for participation in religious services is allowed without payment of a ticket (entrance 30 minutes before the start of the celebration).

    This free ticket does not include the possibility of visiting the Hermitage spaces. For detailed information on religious services and celebrations, it is recommended to contact the reference phone numbers on the official website of the Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso.

Conclusion

The Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso is an extremely important religious, cultural and architectural site on the eastern shores of Lake Maggiore. The natural context in which it is set, the church, the convent, and the bell tower are just some of the fundamental elements that make it possible to consider the Hermitage of Santa Caterina as a true cultural asset. The entire community recognizes this place as a fundamental landmark and is strongly committed to enhancing and protecting it, to give it to future generations. The charm and elegance of the entire area are unique testimonies to the territory and history of Lake Maggiore.

Frequently Asked Questions

How to get to the Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso?
The Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso can be reached mainly by car by following Via Santa Caterina No. 13.
What makes the Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso unique?
What makes the Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso unique is the lake landscape that hosts it.
What to see near Santa Caterina del Sasso Hermitage?
Near the Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso is the site of the Christmas lights of Leggiuno.
Where is the Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso located?
The Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso is located in Italy, in Leggiuno (VA).
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