THE FIRES OF THE SACRED HEART
On the third Sunday after Pentecost, the mountain peaks around Bolzano are aflame in an awe-inspiring spectacle. The fires are lit throughout historic Tyrol, including Austria, to illuminate the mountains in commemoration of an age-old oath.
In 1796, Tyrol was compelled to enter in battle against the French, following the decree of the Empire: to defend oneself in the event of war. Caught unprepared, the local people found themselves in the position of having to organise a defence with no idea of how to do so. The devout believers sent up an oath of loyalty to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in an attempt to appease the heavens, headed out to battle - and won.
And ever since, above all the younger generations of North, South and Italian Tyrol have climbed the mountains on the Sunday of the Sacred Heart hoping for good weather, and light bonfires on the peaks at sunset. Conservative Tyroleans take part together with everybody who wants to enjoy the magic of the night and a good party. The Sacred Heart fire tradition, however, did not simply appear from out of nowhere in 1796.
The fires actually date back to the old summer solstice tradition which has illuminated the shortest night of the year since time immemorial, and which Christianity interpreted as a celebration of the feast of St John. They were lit to ward off evil, to keep storms at bay, and to bring good luck to the people who lived on the mountains. During the fascist regime the bonfires were banned, as was everything connected with German folk culture, tradition and language. It is for this reason that, even to this day, the fires lit on the mountains are seen as a political statement in support of independence. In 1961, a number of electricity pylons were blown up by the secessionist movement on Sacred Heart night to draw global attention to the “Südtirol Problem”. Nowadays, however, the political motives for lighting the fires are shared by only a small sector of the local population.
Alongside the stacks of burning sticks, oil-based works of art and symbolic writings are mapped out on the ground and set on fire at night. The bonfires on the mountains also played a practical role in the past, before the days of the telephone, and were used as a means of long-distance communication. Today, those who want to enjoy celebrations amidst the fires of the mountains meet up for one single night of festivities.
(by Renate Mumelter - Photos: IDM Südtirol / Frieder Blickle - Archive Guenther Obwegs)