Beacons across the mountains
Even today, in early summer the mountain tops are ablaze with beacons to commemorate a solemn religious bond entered into by the Tyroleans in a time of emergency.
In 1511 the Habsburg Emperor Maximilian I granted the Tyroleans special privileges. As part of the so-called “Landlibell” agreement the principle was established that in times of war the Tyroleans would not have to involve themselves beyond their regional borders. In return they were to be responsible for their homeland’s own defence. As the Napoleonic troops advanced closer and closer to Tyrol from northern Italy in 1796 the province prepared for war. The Tyrolean Landstände or Estates General – representatives of the nobility, the clergy, middle classes and peasants – assembled at a congress in Bolzano/Bozen in order to confer on a plan of action. Once all measures had been decided on Abbot Sebastian Stöckl of Stams suggested entrusting the province to the protection of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and so obtain divine help. On 1st June 1796 the solemn promise was made to celebrate the Feast of the Sacred Heart henceforth each year with a ceremonious Mass. The bond was first acknowledged by the lighting of beacons on the mountains 80 years later.
The use of the heart of Jesus to symbolise his love and compassion for humankind is not found in the Bible but in the writings of certain medieval mystics. The devotion was fostered by Jesuit priests and became publicly celebrated in the late 17th century after the French Visitandine nun St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690) received private revelations in which she said Jesus appeared and asked that his heart be thus honoured. Her description of Christ’s bleeding heart as revealed to her became the image subsequently depicted in devotional pictures, now usually a wounded heart encircled by a crown of thorns and radiating light. Initially the Church authorities were sceptical but in 1856 Pope Pius IX introduced the Feast into the calendar of the Catholic Church. The oath of the South Tyrolean Estates General is commemorated with a famous devotional painting in the Bolzano/Bozen Cathedral featuring the Sacred Heart. It was painted by Karl Henrici around 1770. The tradition of lighting fires on the mountains goes back to pre-Christian times. Ritual fires were lit on hilltops and mountains especially at the time of the summer solstice. In Christian times the solstice and the Feast of St. John were very close and in many places the “St. John’s fire” was lit. The Feast of the Sacred Heart is also celebrated at the end of June (on the 3rd Sunday after Whitsun) and the fire on the mountains gradually became renamed. Today the beacons across the mountains are prepared by societies or circles of friends and are lit in places where they are visible from afar. The wood is often carried for hours up to the mountain tops. Some fires are built in the form of a cross, a heart or the initials for Jesus IHS or INRI.