Region: Puglia - Province: Foggia
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Ever since the Greek colonisation, multifarious myths and rites took hold in the Gargano until this area was Christianised - partly on account of the peculiar morphological features, being this a wild, rugged area, covered by forests, and rich in ravines. Many of those myths and rites were related to the presence of therapeutic waters and the practice called incubatio, i.e. a rite whereby one had to sleep close to a holy place to receive, in the following morning, revelations from a deity. These pre-existing rites left some traces in the features typical of the cult of St. Michael.
The history of the shrine and the cult of the Angel in the Gargano could be outlined on the basis of the "Liber de apparitione sancti Michaelis in Monte Gargano", a hagiographic text dating back to the end of the 8th century. The first appearance of the Archangel is said traditionally to have occurred in the year 490, however it is quite likely that the cult arrived in the Gargano in the mid-5th century or even at the beginning of that century. Initially, the cult of the Archangel Michael was mainly a cult of natural, healing forces based on the Saint's appearance and revelations - in line with the ancient pagan worship - and was strongly marked by oriental influences.
Starting from the half of the 7th century, the shrine became the most important place of the cult for the Archangel Michael in the Western world; it was the aim of numberless pilgrimages undertaken by both famous characters and worshippers from all social areas, some of them coming from remote locations. Nowadays, St. Michael's cave continues to be visited by pilgrims.
The huge development of this cult is inextricably related to the coming of Lombards to the Southern part of Italy, at the end of the 6th century. They founded the Duchy of Benevento and marched repeatedly as far as Sipontum, which at that time was under Byzantine rule; it is there that they came in touch with the cult of St. Michael, in whom they recognised many features typical of their main pagan deity, i.e. Wodan. Recently, several early medieval inscriptions could be found, where religious and social traditions of the Lombards are expressly referred to - which led to amending the views developed by previous historians. Lombard sovereigns also repeatedly restored and enlarged the shrine.
The contacts with the Lombards partly modified the features of this cult. Preference was given to the image of the Saint as head of celestial armies - a warrior and the patron saint of warriors. There is little doubt that the devotion to the Archangel Michael facilitated the quick conversion of the Lombards to Catholicism.
The cave in the Gargano was the Lombards' national shrine up to the end of the 9th century, when the Byzantines came back to the Gargano area and tried - albeit unsuccessfully - to appropriate the origin of the cult for the Archangel. Meanwhile, the Normans were conquering the Southern part of Italy, and they also developed a strong link with the shrine in the Gargano - partly because they were already familiar with the cult of St. Michael in Normandy.
Starting from the early Middle Ages, there were numberless pilgrims who went to visit St. Michael's cave and left indelible traces of their passage on the stones and rocks making up the shrine. There are actually symbols, prayers, messages, signs or just names (of Greek, Latin, Semitic, Saxon and German origin, bearing testimony to the heterogeneous features of the pilgrims flocking to this place) inscribed all over the place; they date back to different periods, which shows the unrelenting devotion paid to the shrine uninterruptedly - a feature that is almost unequalled in the Christian world. The earliest traces left by pilgrims date back to the 6th century, therefore they antedate even those related to the Compostela route - the well-known camino jacobeo. The pilgrims include high-ranking members of the Church, members of imperial and royal families, noblemen as well as representatives from the lower classes - which shows that the cult had taken hold also among the have-nots. Exceptional importance should be attached to the presence - which is unique in Italy - of at least five inscriptions written in letters of the ancient Runic alphabet; they were left by Anglo-Saxon pilgrims and bear testimony to the European dimension attained by this pilgrimage in the early Middle Ages.
Additionally, the shrine became an important stop on the route leading to the Holy Land.
With the spreading of the cult for St. Michael, the road crossing the Stigliano Valley - which was basically the same as the ancient via Traiana - was named Via Sacra Langobardorum [i.e. Holy Road of the Lombards]. Along the via Sacra, several shrines can be found together with the traces of the buildings affording shelter to pilgrims (churches, hostels, monasteries, inns, hospitals) and highly valuable historical and artistic items.
The town of Monte Sant'Angelo itself shows remarkable features as to both its urban structure and the historical and artistic sights. The town can be regarded as one of the most interesting examples in Apulia of a "settlement" perched on the crest of a hill; its buildings follow the level curves of the mountain without affecting the integrity of the landscape, whilst defence requirements could be met by building a castle on the topmost part of the town.
Among the monuments in the town, reference should be made to St. Michael's Shrine, whose bronze doors were cast in Constantinople in 1076 whilst Charles of Anjou - under whose rule major works were carried out on the Shrine and its original structure was modified - had the octagonal spire built in the second half of the 13th century. Mention should also be made of the Castle, the so-called Tomb of Rotari - probably a Baptistry dating back to the 12th century - and the Santa Maggiore Church.
The Shrine has always played a key role in the development of the historical centre of Monte Sant'Angelo. Most of the buildings within both the first and the second circle of walls, i.e. those built between the 11th and the 13th century, are closely related to religious activities and the need to provide accommodation to pilgrims. Therefore, the urban structure very much resembled that of an Abbey until the 13th century.
The Shrine in the Gargano was taken as a model also outside Italy. In particular, in France, at the beginning of the 8th century, a shrine was dedicated to St. Michael on a promontory jutting out between Brittany and Normandy - and it came to be known worldwide as the Mont Saint Michel. As a consequence, the cult for St. Michael became widespread in France as well, and many other places of worship were dedicated to the Saint; special importance should be attached to one of them, i.e. St. Michael's Monastery at Verdun, which was founded around the year 722 by Wolfand after he had come back from a pilgrimage to the Gargano.
Over two hundred places of worship dedicated to St. Michael can be found in the sole Langobardia minor, whilst many other such places can be found in the rest of Italy and in Europe - where the cult for St. Michael took hold between the 8th and the 9th century. However, the Shrine at Monte Sant'Angelo is the oldest place of worship dedicated to St. Michael in the western world, and served as the model for all other shrines.
The pilgrimage to the Shrine in the Gargano, as shown by the graffiti dating back to the 6th century left by pilgrims, antedates the practice of the pilgrimage to Compostela along the well-known camino jacobeo.