The Sanctuary of St. Michael on Mount Gargano

in , updated on

The monumental St. Michael’s Cave, on the Gargano promontory in northern Apulia, is a holy place since time immemorial. It is the place where the Sublime and the encounter with the divine are manifested. According to tradition, the cave was chosen by Archangel Michael, the commander of the celestial militia, as a house of worship and prayer. It was here that the Sanctuary of St. Michael (also known as the Sanctuary of Monte Sant’Angelo) was founded, site of prayer and pilgrimage permeated by a mystical atmosphere beyond the comprehension of human reason.

Michele Arcangelo Guido Reni
St. Michael the Archangel by Guido Reni (1635). Rome, Church of Santa Maria immacolata Concezione

St. Michael the Archangel, who is like God?

Mi-ka-El, whose name literally means “who is like God?”, is mentioned in biblical texts in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Book of Daniel he is the great prince who defends the Jews against the Persians1. In the Epistle of Jude2 and especially in the Book of Revelation3, he appears as the great opponent of the devil, as commander of the celestial militia.

Archangel Michael, defend us in battle: be thou our support against the wickedness and snares of the devil. God exercises his rule over him, we pray thee beseeching. What about you, O Prince of the heavenly army, with divine power, cast into hell Satan and other evil spirits who roam the world to lose souls. Amen.

Pope Leo XIII, on 13 October 1884, at the end of a Eucharistic celebration, had a vision of the destruction of the Church by Satan, fiercely averted by the intervention of St Michael. From that day on, the prayer was recited at the end of all masses; it was abolished with the Second Vatican Council. Translation by P. Emiliano Tardif, Fraternity of Syracuse

The Sanctuary of St. Michael on Mount Gargano is dedicated to him.

Origins of the cult and the mystical apparitions of Monte Sant’Angelo

The origins of a Michaelic cult at the cave of Monte Sant’Angelo can be traced back to between the end of the 5th century and the beginning of the next. A short hagiographic text by an anonymous author, the last draft of which dates back to the 8th century, the Apparitio Sancti Michaelis in Monte Gargano4, attests to the prodigious events that, according to tradition, led to the foundation of the Sanctuary; it is linked to at least three extraordinary mystical apparitions of Archangel Michael.

The bull episode

According to the hagiographic source, Gargano, a rich landowner, was leading his cattle out to pasture. Suddenly one of the bulls wandered off and disappeared. The owner found him, some time later, in front of the entrance to a cave on top of a mountain. On seeing this Gargano, got caught up in a fit of rage, took up his bow and quickly shot a poisoned arrow (sagitta toxicata) towards the animal. But the dart, mysteriously changing direction, came back and struck the one who had shot it. The local bishop – whom later tradition identified as St. Lorenzo Maiorano of Siponto5 – learned of the incident with dismay and proclaimed three days of prayer and penance, at the end of which Archangel Michael appeared to him. With a proud voice, he revealed that he was the guardian of the cave (inspector atque custos).

“For I am Michael the Archangel, who stands always in sight of the Lord. And resolving to protect this place and the people of this land, I sought to demonstrate by this sign that I am the watcher and guardian of the place and all things which are done there”

Apparitio Sancti Michaelis in Monte Gargano, translation from Christopher West, St. Michael the Archangel in Late Antiquity, Undergraduate Honors Theses. Paper 737, 2014
The Apparition of the Bull on Mount Gargano, Cappella Bessarione in the Basilica dei Santi XII Apostoli, Rome6

St Michael defends the Longobards

A second appearance is reported in hagiographies at the time when a Greek-Byzantine army was threatening the city of Siponto, where Benevento allies, the Longobards, had barricaded themselves. The bishop of the city asked for and obtained the intercession of St. Michael the Archangel, who prophesied victory. As thanksgiving, he and a group of the faithful went to the cave. Here he found St. Michael’s footprint imprinted (quasi hominis vestigia marmori artius impressa).

The dedication of the cave

The Apparitio Sancti Michaelis in Monte Gargano then recalls the episode “of the dedication”. After the victorious battle of Siponto, the bishop decided to consecrate the Gargano cave to the cult of St. Michael. However, the Archangel reappeared and assured that he himself had already sanctified the cave. When the bishop entered, he was surprised to find that an altar had already been erected, covered by a red pallium, above which stood a cross.

“It is not necessary that you dedicate this church that I myself have consecrated with my presence”.

Apparitio Sancti Michaelis in Monte Gargano, translation from Bob Lord, Penny Lord, Saint Michael the Archangel, Journeys of Faith, 2019

Finally, the hagiographic text reports that a miraculous water called stilla, with healing properties, flowed from the walls of the cave and was collected in a bowl.

sanctuary of St. Michael
The Basylica grandis of the Sanctuary of St. Michael on Mount Gargano

Symbolic meaning of the apparitions

The story of Michael’s mystical apparitions is a reflection of a symbolic knowledge well known in the rural contexts of northern Apulia. Primarily Gargano, the eponymous hero (the Apparitio reports “qui et ex eventu suo monti vocabulum indidit“), is the personification of the place itself and its ancient pagan beliefs, into which the new cult was incorporated. He is a metaphor for the vengeful actions of the gods, as opposed to the mercy of the Christians.

On the other hand, the bull was an animal with a strong symbolic value7. In Mithraism, a cult of oriental origin but widespread throughout the Roman Empire between the 3rd and 4th centuries, tauroctonia played a predominant role; numerous depictions of the god Mithras killing a bull still exist. The purpose of the Michaelic hagiography thus seems clear: the ritual sacrifice of the animal is rejected, there is no longer any need for it, as the God of Christians now triumphs in the place. The arrow shot by Gargano is deflected by a breath of wind (velud venti lamine retorta), a sign of the Holy Spirit.

A chosen place

Even the location of the story is chosen. Rugged and uncontaminated is the nature of the cave, which can only be reached by a steep climb. It is here, on the mountain, that the transcendent manifests itself, the distance from the world facilitates the mystical encounter with the divine. The hill is a sacred center like the biblical mountain, the chosen place for the covenant between God and the people. The Gargano cave, with its naturalistic aspects, thus becomes the prototype of the Michaelic sanctuary throughout Europe. Here was the hierophany of the Archangel, who had personally consecrated it. The mountain, the rugged path, the rock, the healing stilla are indispensable elements of the place of worship dedicated to Michael.

The ad instar sanctuaries of the Gargano cave

They characterise sanctuaries built similarly to the Apulian one8, which could only be consecrated by means of a transfer of sacredness. Since the Archangel is believed to be incorporeal, there were no relics to place on the altars, nor clothing, nor objects linked to his cult. Thus, small natural elements (pebbles, water…) were taken directly from the holy site on Mount Gargano, then carried by pilgrims to the churches to be dedicated to Michael. Among the sanctuaries constructed on the model of the Gargano one are of particular importance: Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, whose hagiography, moreover, traces the same symbolic elements in the Revelatio Ecclesiae sancti Michaelis in monte Tumba9, and St. Michael’s Abbey in Val di Susa.

A popular tradition says that the most important shrines dedicated to the Archangel are connected by an imaginary line, called the Sacred Line of St. Michael. According to the myth, it corresponds to the sword stroke inflicted to plunge the devil into the underworld.

St. Michael
The Sacred Line of St. Michael

Besides Mont Saint-Michel in France, St. Michael’s Abbey in Val di Susa and the Sanctuary of St. Michael on Mount Gargano, the path is extended northwards to the Irish monastery of Skelling Michael. Here St. Michael is said to have appeared to St. Patrick. Further, the line reaches southwards to the Monastery of Mount Carmel in the Holy Land, passing by St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall and the monastery of Symi in Greece. These are mystical places, each of which is connected to an apparition of the Angel or to a particular veneration of the same10.

The conversion of pagan rites

Before the advent of the Michaelic cult, the pagan rite of incubatio probably took place in the Gargano cave. This was the name given to the common practice in agro-pastoral society of spending the night in a sacred place, waiting to receive a divination. Strabo attests that near a hill called Drion, today identified with the mountain that houses the Sanctuary of St. Michael, there were two shrines, dedicated to the Homeric heroes Chalcas and Podalirius11. In these areas of ancient Daunia, it was believed that sleeping inside the heroon of Chalcas, in the skin of a black ram, favoured oneiric manifestations12. The reference to the sacellum of Podalirius can also be related to the later beliefs of the Michaelic Sanctuary, since the water that flowed along a river, located nearby, was said to have miraculous healing properties.

It is interesting to note how the rite of incubatio recurs in the biblical story of Jacob, who at Bethel receives a vision of God in a dream13, since the words he pronounces upon awakening are found on the lintel of the entrance to the cave of Monte Sant’Angelo: terribilis est locus iste, hic domus Dei est et ianua coeli!

Michael, protector of the Longobards

A later historiographical tradition has placed the first apparition of Michael on Mount Gargano in 490. Instead the other episodes narrated by the Apparitio Sancti Michaelis in Monte Gargano respectively on 8 May 492 – which is why that day is considered the dies festus of the Archangel – and 493. Rather, it is now certain that the text refers to at least two different historical contexts: if, in fact, the first and third apparitions are consistent with the characteristics of the Michaelic cult already attested in Constantinople in the fifth century (in particular incubatio and healing waters), the episode of the battle belongs to a later period.

Its origins can be traced back to the literary production of the Longobard Duchy of Benevento, which had taken possession of the cave on the Gargano in the 7th century. Paul the Deacon, in his Historia Langobardorum reveals that in 650 there was a battle between the Longobards and Byzantines in Siponto.

Hence the political intent of attributing military victory to the intercession of the Archangel seems clear, as to emphasise the Longobards’ status as a people blessed by God. The last redaction of the Apparitio probably dates back to the 8th century, when the Duke of Benevento was Arechis II14. When they arrived on the Gargano, the Longobards found the cult of St. Michael, the supreme celestial commander, already widespread. The Archangel had many of the attributes of the Nordic god Wodan, so that they chose him as the protector of the Regnum Langobardorum.

The Sanctuary of St. Michael on Mount Gargano

Among the Longobards, the cult of Michael experienced a rapid expansion. It soon crossed the Italic borders, becoming a real instrumentum regni through which the process of Christianisation was realised and political power was consolidated. Some epigraphs attest to the fact that visits to the sanctuary on the Gargano were already numerous in the last quarter of the 7th century. This is why the pre-existing structures had to be enlarged. The inscriptions bear the names of the Duke of Benevento Grimoald I (647-671) and his son Romuald I (662-687). Under their reign a monumental gallery was probably built connecting the two main cavities of the mount. The small ravine on the eastern flank of the hill, where the Apparitio reports the discovery of St. Michael’s footprint, was opposed by the larger chamber, known as Basylica grandis, facing south.

Pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of St. Michael

The rooms used as a refuge for pilgrims on their way to Monte Sant’Angelo, commissioned by Desiderius’ wife (756-774), Ansa, date back to the next century. The city was well connected to both the road axes of the Via Litoranea, which lapped the coast of the Adriatic Sea, and the Via Appia-Traiana. This latter, coming from Benevento, took a diversion to Troia, and from there reached the Sanctuary of St. Michael on Mount Gargano. These routes are referred to in Medieval texts as derivations of the Via Francigena, sometimes as Stratam Peregrinorum (1132) or Stratam magnam que pergit ad Sanctum Michaelem (1201)15, but modern scholars have also given them the evocative name of Via Sacra Langobardorum. One of the first historically attested pilgrimages is the Itinerarium Bernardi monachi from 86716.

In the extensive epigraphic corpus found at the Sanctuary, we find evidence of pilgrims who passed through these paths. They used to leave their names engraved on the walls of the sacred building, alongside the symbol of the cross or other geometric signs. Among the inscriptions, which are sometimes not easy to read, the names of four visitors in runic characters in futhorc (Wigfus, Hereberehct, Leofwini, Herraed) are visible. This is a sign that the cult of St. Michael had extended beyond the English Channel and among peoples of Germanic origin.

The building of the Sanctuary of St Michael and the Cave

Over the centuries, the architecture of the sanctuary was continuously transformed, becoming more and more complex. Today, only the upper portion of the cave is visible, as the addition of a floor during the Middle Ages covered the older, underlying architectural structures. Beneath the floor are the crypt spaces, including the original entrance of the ravine (B), the 40-metre-long Longobard gallery (A), which houses the lapidary museum, and a chapel, named Apodonia (B)17.

sanctuary of St. Michael
Sanctuary of St. Michael on Mount Gargano

The upper atrium

The cave is accessed from the upper level through an atrium, the façade of which, consisting of two pointed Gothic arches, was last renovated in 1865. At the aedicula in the centre of the triangular pediment, flanked by two small rose windows, is a statue of St. Michael.

Above the entrance portals of the atrium, with pointed arches and carved lunettes, are two plaques with inscriptions. The one on the right contains the verses of the prophet Jacob, taken from the book of Genesis, at the end of the incubatio:

Terribilis est locus iste, hic domus dei est et porta coeli

How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven

The Book of Genesis 28,17

The plaque above the left, on the other hand, contains the words of the Archangel Michael as reported by the Apparitio in the third apparition:

Non est vobis opus hanc quam aedificavi basilicam dedicare ipse enim qui condidi etiam consecravi“.

From the Apparitio Sancti Michaelis in Monte Gargano

Only the right portal dates back to the 14th century. The carved lunette, a work by magister Simeon, as indicated by a nearby engraving, shows Virgin Mary holding Christ in her arms, flanked by Saints Paul and Peter. The smaller figure is Margaret, mother of the commissioner of the work, the King of Naples Ladislaus of Anjou-Durazzo.

sanctuary of St. Michael
Detail on a right portal jamb

The left lunette, dated 1865, shows a procession of bishops on their way to the cave just consecrated by Michael the Archangel.

The octagonal bell tower of the Sanctuary of St. Michael

To the side of the atrium stands the octagonal bell tower. It was commissioned to the brothers Giordano and Marando by Charles I of Anjou as a vow to St. Michael for the conquest of southern Italy (1274). It is not excluded that the construction work on the tower begun earlier, in the Swabian period, as it resembles the geometry of Frederick’s Castel del Monte.

sanctuary of St. Michael
The Angevin Tower

Originally the octagonal tower was forty metres high, but for unknown reasons was reduced to its current height of twenty-seven. It opens to the outside through monofora windows and four elegant bifora windows with round arches.

The access staircase and the Cave of Monte Sant’Angelo

The atrium leads to the Basylica grandis through the wide staircase and architectural additions from the Angevin period (13th century). However, the basilica is preceded by an entrance with a bronze portal. It was made by Byzantine craftsmen in Constantinople and commissioned by Pantaleone di Mauro of Amalfi (1076) and shows stories from the Old and New Testaments. The doorway is placed in continuity with a nave with three high bays with cross vaults, on the longitudinal side of which is the suggestive Cave of the Archangel.

sanctuary of St. Michael

Inside the cave, near the presbytery, is the famous statue of St Michael by Andrea Contucci, known as Sansovino (1507). The episcopal chair, made by Magister Acceptus in the first half of the 11th century, is also of exquisite workmanship.

The founding of Monte Sant’Angelo

As the Sanctuary grew in popularity, the town of Monte Sant’Angelo gradually developed, encouraged by the faith of the pilgrims who came to the Gargano for devotion to St. Michael. From the 5th century onwards, as the cult spread, an increasing number of people began to settle near the cave. In addition, already by the 8th century, the Longobards had fortified the town with walls.

sanctuary of St. Michael
The castle of Monte Sant’Angelo dates back to the 8th century. However, what remains visible today is the result of considerable transformations over several centuries. The castle was originally built from a military need, but was soon transformed into a residential building under the Normans. Frederick II of Swabia was particularly fond of the building, such that he personally appointed the castellan.

Monte Sant’Angelo had extensive privileges even after the expulsion of the Longobards. In the Carolingian age, the emperor Ludwig II issued two diplomas, in 869, following a sacking by the Saracens that had devastated the town, and in 875, with which he conferred economic and jurisdictional concessions18. Another diploma, sealed by Emperor Otto I in 967, confirmed and extended all the existing privileges. From that moment on, Monte Sant’Angelo was one of the most important political centres in southern Italy, especially during the Norman, Swabian and Angevin periods. This is an exceptional case: not the city conforms to the will of the powerful, but the kings of the earth have to comply with the will of Michael, heavenly protector and guardian of the sacred cave.

Samuele Corrente Naso

Map of places

Notes

  1. Book of Daniel 10:13; 12:1. ↩︎
  2. Epistle of Jude 1.9. ↩︎
  3. Book of Revelation 12,7. ↩︎
  4. G. Waitz, Monumenta Germaniae historica, Scriptores rerum Langobardicarum et Italicarum saec. VI – IX, 1878. L’Apparitio Sancti Michaelis in Monte Gargano is here taken from the code Coloniensis 19. Document. ↩︎
  5. By an anonymous author is the text Vita Sancti Laurentii episcopi Sipontini from the 10th-11th century. ↩︎
  6. Peter1936F – Own work. ↩︎
  7. M. Trotta, Il santuario di San Michele sul Gargano dal tardoantico all’altomedioevo, 2012. ↩︎
  8. G. Otranto, Genesi, caratteri e diffusione del culto micaelico del Gargano, in Culte et pèlerinages à saint Michel en Occident, 2003; G. Otranto, Il culto di San Michele dal Gargano a Mont Saint-Michel in Normandia alla Sacra in Val di Susa, in Il faro di San Michele tra angeli e pellegrini, Atti del VII convegno sacrense, a cura di A. Salvatori, 1999. ↩︎
  9. P. Bouet, Revelatio et les origines du culte à Saint Michel sur le Mont Tombe, in Culte et pèlerinages, 2003. ↩︎
  10. Kether, La linea del Drago tracciata da San Michele Arcangelo, in L’Archetipo, n. 3, marzo 2018. ↩︎
  11. Strabo, Geography VI, 3,9. ↩︎
  12. L. Carnevale, L’episodio del toro nell’Apparitio Sancti Michaelis in Monte Gargano, notizie storiche e percorsi interpretativi. In: Sacer bosi. Usi cerimoniali di bovini in Italia e nelle aree romanze occidentali, 2014. ↩︎
  13. Book of Genesis 28:10-22. ↩︎
  14. I. Aulisa, San Michele al Gargano e la diffusione del modello garganico, 2019. ↩︎
  15. M. Falcone, O. Giuffreda, Monte Sant’Angelo tra storia e immagini, Dalle origini al XV secolo, 1999. ↩︎
  16. U. Dovere, Itinerario dei luoghi santi, Napoli, 2003. ↩︎
  17. Ibidem note 15. ↩︎
  18. Ibidem note 15. ↩︎
Samuele avatar
error: Content is protected !!