St. Sylvester

This quaint chapel dedicated to St. Sylvester sits atop the highest point of the San Silvestro/Silvester valley, which runs parallel to the main valley from Prato Drava/Winnebach to Valle San Silvestro/Wahlen near Dobbiaco/Toblach. Archaeologists have classified its location as a prehistoric hill fort. Since most pre-Christian sanctuaries were built at such high altitudes, it is quite possible that the chapel of San Silvestro in Monte/St. Silvester auf der Alm was built on the remnants of a sacrificial altar used by pre-Germanic shepherds.

Legend has it that a Christian king had a pagan place of worship with many images destroyed and a Christian temple built in its place. Pre-Christian superstition, however, proved to be difficult to eradicate: Shepherds continued to hang figurines of horses, cows, sheep etc. from a larch right outside the chapel, and most pilgrims chose to venerate the larch without paying the chapel much attention. To end this pagan tradition once and for all, the legend continues, a priest eventually had the larch felled, after which the worshippers resorted to simply kneeling in front of the tree stump to pray, and many still left without visiting the chapel. A few members of the elder generations still remember the stump – and, not far from it, a deep cave cluttered with all sorts of "old stuff": crosses, masks, wax tapers and many more items of church use. In 1917, a large chunk of the hillside collapsed and broke off, taking the larch stump and most of the cave down with it. To this day, many pilgrims make little crosses out of larch twigs bound together by blades of grass and put them in what is left of the cave. According to ancient beliefs, if they find their cross again upon returning the following year, they will be blessed with good luck for a year. And so, against all adversities, the pre-Christian pagan traditions continue to live and thrive in this singular place.
It is safe to assume that the bishopric in the Roman city of Aguntum was already in place to convert pre-Germanic settlers. Perhaps upon their arrival, the missionaries discovered a sacrificial altar dedicated to a Deus Silvester, a god of the woods, which was easy to turn into St. Sylvester: In the 6th century, the veneration of saints was already common practice throughout the Noricum province, and in addition to that, St. Sylvester was considered a patron saint of farmers and animals. Apart from this first and rather superficial Christianisation, no pastoral care was available to the population between the destruction of Aguntum in 612 and the founding of the Benedictine monastery of San Candido/Innichen in 769 – nor presumably in any significant form afterwards, as the very few monks of the monastery had been put in charge of the entire eastern Pusteria/Pustertal valley and furthermore preferred to devote their time to a rather contemplative life. And so a variety of pagan traditions resurfaced, undoubtedly portraying St. Sylvester in a flickering haze of both Christian and pagan beliefs.
A more comprehensive pastoral care was provided in the mid-12th century, when Otto I Bishop of Freising split the San Candido/Innichen parish, which included the entire eastern part of the Pusteria/Pustertal valley, into smaller parishes: Villabassa/Niederdorf, Dobbiaco/Toblach, San Candido/Innichen and Sillian. It was in the Middle Ages, when new colonies were being established all over Europe, that the Mittereggen, Wieslehen, Wegefeld, Strickhof and Egarten farmsteads were founded. The records show that they were stately homesteads with year-round livestock rearing and grain farming. Since the 18th century, they have only been used as mountain pastures. Located at altitudes of around 1900 m above sea-level, they were the highest agricultural structures in all of Tyrol. The chapel was mostly built to provide pastoral care for this high-altitude settlement and included a hermitage in the summer and early autumn months. Prior to its construction, the only form of worship was a pre-Christian larch tree cult. Around 1440, the chapel was extended. In 1441, it was re-consecrated and in 1455 endowed with indulgences by Cardinal Nicolaus Cusanus of Bressanone/Brixen. Set cosily amidst the ample meadows, the chapel with its small bell tower integrated into the façade is a picturesque sight. Its interior consists of a simple rectangular room with a flat wooden ceiling and a small apsis in the east – a singularly well-preserved example of pre-Romanesque ecclesiastical architecture. The paintings are thought to be the work of Meister von Klerant, a member of the Brixen School of Painters, and date back to between 1450 and 1460. Several saints are featured on the quire arch: Peter, Paul, Ingenuinus and Albuin; at the back of the arch: angels holding the Sudarium. The apsis is covered is frescoes, from left: the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus, St. Sylvester, St. Nicholas, St. Candidus and St. Corbinian – the monastery's patron saint –, the Annunciation, the birth of Jesus Christ, the Adoration of the Kings and the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple. On the door jambs, a particularly magnificent depiction shows the Visitation alongside St. Catherine and St. Dorothy.
After Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, had the chapel desecrated, it was left to the ravages of time for over a hundred years. When efforts to repair it began in 1898, conservation expert Alfons Siber from Hall not only restored the frescoes but also amended and completed them with such outstanding care and skill that when another conservation project was carried out in 1986, in some places it proved impossible to tell what was part of the original frescoes and which details were reconstructed by Siber.
The hamlet with its pastures and former farmsteads is a scenic, fascinating part of South Tyrolean history and an impressive reminder of the achievements of Late Medieval clearing and settlement endeavours. According to legend, the owner and master of the Mittereggen estate was once the richest and most respected farmer of Prato Drava/Winnebach. Oral tradition recounts that on the night of Christmas Eve, Midnight Mass could not start without him: After his ceremonious arrival at the church, he would hand a lavishly decorated sacrificial lamb to the waiting priest, and only then would the Service of Worship begin.
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