Although we don't tend to see them now so much as we use to, There was a time in the 50s, 60s, and 70s when hardly a tourist area in this country didn't have it's own wax museum. A few, such as Madam Tousaud's in London, still exist and are considered classics, but the vast majority were second-rate rip-offs catering to teenagers or younger, where movie creatures from Frankenstein to Frank Furter (Rocky Horror Picture Show) strutted their stuff next to poor likenesses of recent presidents. Though the wax museum is an outgrowth of the nineteenth century, the yearning to create realistic, painted, sculptural likenesses goes back much further. The medium was not colored (or painted) wax but painted wood, and the work dates back to the early 1600s.

Two artists collaborated. Giovanni d'Errico carved the statues and an artist who went by the name, Morazzone, painted the frescos forming a backdrop for them in decorating Chapel XXXV of Sacro Monte, Varallo, in the mountains of Northern Italy. The tableau is entitled "Christ Condemned." I mentioned wax museums at the start because the installation reminds one of what we might encounter in that venue. Photographed, one might even go so far as to say it resembles a "still" from a motion picture on the life and death of Christ. Yet the whole thing is over 400 years OLD. It's a mixed medium extravaganza rivaling a passion play, in the finest baroque tradition, perfectly preserved over the centuries by the monks of the Sacro Monte shrine.

Pontius Pilate sits in judgment, Ciaphus presents his case. Christ is diminutive, humbled, cloaked in a short, red robe mocking kingly grandeur, while all about are up to a dozen Roman guards, Jews, and onlookers. Though carved, painted wood is the medium of choice, the clothes, the swords, the spears, the Roman helmets, all are REAL. On the walls in back, the fresco artist, Morazzone, a follower of Gaudenzio Ferrari, has recreated with trompe l'oeil fidelity the grand arches and architecture of the Roman court framing a crucifixion and still more painted figures in an overall mixed-media presentation to rival or even surpass the best Madam Tousaud ever had to offer. If this presentation is sufficient to awe us today, think what an impact it must have had on the weary pilgrims who trekked up to this remote, mountain monastery four hundred years ago.