St Giulio arrived with his brother Giuliano around 370 A.D. He decided to build his hundredth church on the island, rife then, the story goes, with dragons and serpents (pagans, more like). Having sailed over the lake on his cloak, he sent the beasts (whoever or whatever they were) packing and began the building of his church.
The feast day of St Giulio is 31st January. He is the patron of builders and stone masons, who flock to the island on his feast day for a celebratory mass, during which a lamb decked with coloured ribbons is offered on the altar then, that afternoon, put up for auction. Of course, the terrified lamb ends up served with roast potatoes. All very pagan.
computer graphics by Giacomo Saporito
..." One thing is known for certain: the boatmen flatly refused to take St Giulio over to the island. Whether this was out of sheer cussedness (nearly two thousand years later, little has changed) or because they were afraid of the dragons – or because the ‘dragons’, like the boatmen, were really pagans – it is not given to us to know. But refuse they did.
As though this would deter old Julius, after all his work and wanderings! He and his brother Julian were born on the Greek island of Aegina and had maintained their Byzantine faith despite the pressures of Arian persecution raging round them. After their education in Athens and taking orders – Giulio became a priest, Giuliano a deacon - the brothers proposed to evangelise the pagan regions and to this end obtained from Theodius the Great, the Emperor of the East and of the West, an Imperial Order. With this order all governors, field-masters (mastri di campo) tribunes and centurions were obliged to lend obedience to the two brothers, besides giving protection and unlimited assistance.
Smart lads, doing things in style! In 383 off they went on their journey to convert pagan sites, with an emphasis on stamping out pockets of the Mithraic cult .
It is said they travelled through Hungary, Croazia, Bohemia, Germany and Poland before arriving in Italy. They began their Italian journey not far from Naples, founding the cathedral at Chieti. Then they made their way north to Liguria and Lombardy, lending a hand in Milan to St Ambrose.
Leaving Milan in 390, they ventured into the province of Novara, a province then still defiantly pagan, meeting up with St Gaudenzio and erecting churches on the chief pagan sites: at Vercelli and on the banks and islands of Lake Maggiore. Only once, it seems, they had to admit defeat and move on: near a place called Staziona, probably Angera, Giulio refused to stay, prophesying future disasters – but could it have been because of an exceedingly strong following of the Mithraic cult there?
The brothers at last came to the shores of our lake, evangelising Crusinallo, Ameno, Armeno and Gozzano. But before the construction of the church at Gozzano – their ninety-ninth – was finished, Giulio left Giuliano to get on with the building and made his way to LakeOrta.
After descending through the sweet woods of chestnut and silver birch and refreshing himself at the antique spring with its waters cool even on the hottest day (some say the spring began to flow for the first time when Giulio, thirsty, tapped on the rock with his staff), he stood on the lake banks. How heavenly the island must have appeared! Shimmering on its rainbow waters, hazed with violet mists – what better place to erect his hundredth church!
So never mind the boatmen and their muttering and grumbling! Giulio spread his heavy wool cloak on the waters, stepped on to it and whisked over the lake, waving his staff. He’d like to see the dragon – or pagan – who could withstand him!..."
N.B. Another version has St Giulio asking the boatmen at Omegna, at the northern end of the lake, to take him to the island but they refused and the townspeople hurled turnips at him. So St Giulio, in a not very saintly reaction to their ill treatment of him, put a curse on turnips, which have never since then been grown successfully at Omegna.
Souce: 'the Metastory of Isola San Giulio' by Gabriel Griffin, to be published in 2016