The Vitaleta Chapel Story

A visit to Tuscany was one of those must-do trips on my photo bucket list. After much deliberation and research, I chose to visit the Val d’Orcia region in May 2016 to explore its rolling landscape, villages and towns.

If one visualises atmospheric, fairytale landscapes, this is the location of rolling hills, photogenic farms, magical mist and sweeping tree-lined drives.

The Chapel of Our Lady of Vitaleta is a small sacred building, located on a hilltop on the road that connects San Quirico d’Orcia to Pienza. It wasn’t the easiest of subjects to locate on my second full day spent in the area. Perhaps for me, at distance, it was a sight that one could so easily blink and miss. Fortunately, the curiosity of seeing a car pulled up at the side of the road and a couple of tourists peering and pointing, guided my gaze in the right direction and there it was. However, I didn’t want to just look at a speck on the far horizon and wondered how I might be able to get closer. I didn’t have a detailed map with me and all I relied on was a rough idea of location and eyes to look for a road sign to an access road or track. This was easier said than done and I found myself driving up and down the main road between Pienza and San Quirico a couple of times before I noticed, what resembled a track and followed my nose eventually to pull in and continue the rest of the journey on foot to the rear of the chapel.

Although I had set out quite early, the morning’s sun had climbed to adopt a point in the sky that benefited the lighting of the field and architectural features of the rear rather than the front aspect as viewed from the road. I decided to treat the visit as a scouting mission to decide which aspects I could work with and make rough calculations for timing depending on the weather conditions. It was May, after all, and, after arriving at Pisa airport in the blistering sun, the next day was overcast with heavy showers and thunderstorms.

The weather during the first visit to the Vitaleta Chapel started out sunny but, as the day progressed, the cloud increased and by the afternoon there were showers.

Capturing The Vitaleta Chapel Image

I took a variety of images during my first visit – from the rear and, as the cloud cover increased, from the front. As a very popular location for photographers and tourists, it was to be expected that I would encounter other photographers there and, sure enough, as I made my way to the front facade, there were a couple of photographers with tripods. I had already accepted that to photograph this aspect (for the vision I had), the conditions were not really suitable as the cloud was not sufficient to mask bright, sun-filled areas in the sky. I would need to return another day and during the golden hour before sunset to get the kind of magic light I intended.

It was patience that enabled me to capture the image here.

On arrival at the location, there was a bank of cloud in the west that threatened to cloak the sinking sun and thus spoil the magic event. Unperturbed and hopeful, I set up the camera on the tripod, made a rough calculation of exposure and observed the countdown whilst looking to the west in the hope that the sun would slip out of a pocket in the cloud.

There was something quite mesmerising about the low, raking light of gold as it gradually slipped through the cloud and lit the chapel. There was a childlike sensation of magic and wonder – a reaction to a witnessed experience I shall never forget. At first, the facade appeared to become a shield of the most intense golden light – too bright to click the shutter. The right time would come but I had to wait just a little longer before the sun slipped low enough and less intense to make the first step of my vision a reality.

For further information on The Chapel of Our Lady of Vitaleta:


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