The origins of Monte Sant’Angelo are closely linked to the worship of Saint Michael, which took on a precise nature and type in this very Gargano headland and then spread during the Middle Ages to other european countries.
The Longobards were responsible for the development and growth of the worship of the Archangel. The names of the Queen Ansa, of Romualdo II, of Gisulfo II which are found on the walls of the Sanctuary, are proof of a privileged relationship between the Longobards and Saint Michael.
The same story of the Apparitions of Saint Michael is linked to the chain of events relating to their arrival.
An almost compulsory destination along the itinerary of the Via Sacra Langobardorum - which took pilgrims to the Holy Land from central and northern Europe - the Gargano grotto was, during the Middle Ages, a true Sanctuary model.
The fact that several places of worship dedicated to Michael were built to imitate the Gargano Sanctuary and were presented as filiations is proof of this fact if we think of the famous Sanctuary of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy or the charming “Sacra” of San Michele in Val di Susa.
“Whoever you may be, pilgrim from western
lands; go to the city of the venerable Peter
and the Gargano slope of the venerable cavern;
…there will be no need to fear the
arrows of predators, nor the cold, nor the
clouds of the dark night: indeed, for you,
[Queen Ansa] has prepared abundant food
This is how Paul the Deacon speaks
of the Sanctuary of San Michele
in the Gargano in the epitaph of Queen Ansa.
From the time of its colonization by the Greeks until the arrival of christianity, the site witnessed the spreading of various pagan cults closely related to the environmental configuration of the area.
In particular, certain water divining cults present in the area, venerating the diviner Calchas and the physician Podalirius, are both mentioned by Strabo in his description of their respective rites, characterized by the use of healing waters and the ritual practice of the incubatio, typical of the Sanctuary of Asclepio at Epidauro, which provided that the participants spent the night in a sacred place, wrapped in animal skins, awaiting the morning to receive revelations and replies from the divinity.
- INTRODUCING THE CULT OF ST. MICHAEL FROM EAST TO APULIAN HEADLAND
- FROM PAGAN CULTS WORSHIP TO THE SELF-CONSECRATION OF THE ARCHANGEL
- THE ATTACK OF BYZANTINES AND THE VICTORY OF THE LONGOBARDS
- THE SANCTUARY AND THE LONGOBARD DYNASTIES OF PAVIA AND BENEVENTO
Between the middle and the end of the 5th century, the cult of St. Michael, having spread from east, was introduced onto the Apulian headland, to a cave which for centuries had been the site of pagan worship and which was particularly well-suited to host ceremonies of a sacred nature.
The veneration of angels in general, and that of Michael in particular, despite the distrust and suspicion of the early christian Church, was already extremely widespread throughout the east in the 4th century.
Archangel Michael was venerated especially amongst the less affluent classes, as a physician and patron Saint of healing waters, but also as psychopomp and warrior, often taking the place of indigenous pagan divinities.
Emperor Constantine re-consecrated a temple in honour of Michael which had previously been dedicated to Vesta. There are a number of particularly relevant similarities to be noted between the Sanctuary of Constantinople and the Gargano Temple. Both are situated on headlands, surrounded by atmospheric natural landscapes, and both were originally home to pagan worships and incubation rites: they all are shared distinctive elements.
The one element not present in the Byzantine example, which is however found in the Gargano Temple, is the grotto.
Mountains, woodland, water and cave are therefore the main themes which, together with the Apparition of the Angel, characterized the cult of St. Michael in Gargano from its earliest days. It is these apparitions and revelations which form the very basis of the cult, venerating a Saint who performs miracles with water, his powers manifested through miraculous natural phenomena, defending the Sanctuary and making the site a popular destination for pilgrims.
Reconstructions of the development of the cult of St. Michael on the Gargano peninsula are based mainly on the Liber de apparitione Sancti Michaelis in Monte Gargano (= Apparitio), a hagiographic, anonymous piece of writing dating to the end of the 8th century.
The writing describes three episodes –“The bull tale“, “The battle tale”, “The church consecration tale”- which shed light on some of the most significant moments in the history of the cult of St. Michael and the Sanctuary.
The first and third sections have been viewed as the most salient, describing the first centuries of Sanctuary life (5th–6th century), when the dedication of the cave shifted from pagan cults worship to the self-consecration of the Archangel.
This was later followed by the dedication of the new site of worship by the Bishop and the people of Siponto.
An analysis of relevant data from the first and third episodes along with an interpretation of the monument in its current state of conservation provide an indication of the original lay-out of the cave -as described in the Apparitio-cripta e domus angulosa.
The end of the 6th century witnessed the arrival of the Longobards on the social and political scene of southern Italy.
After the Duke Zotton founded the Duchy of Benevento in 572, they sought to gain footholds on the tyrrhenian and Adriatic coasts on a number of occasions in order to take control of the fertile plains of Apulia and Campania. As part of their expansionist drive, the Longobards thrust forwards repeatedly as far as Sipontium, at that time still under Byzantine rule, and home of the Diocese of the Sanctuary of St. Michael, to which the Longobards were immediately drawn.
The Longobards must have found St. Michael particularly attractive, recognizing in him certain characteristics and attributes of the pagan god Wodan, considered by Germanic peoples to be the supreme being, god of war, protector of heroes and warriors.
The Byzantines were concerned by the expansionist aspirations of the Longobards and, according to the accounts of Paul the Deacon, attacked the Sanctuary towards the end of 650 but were harshly defeated by the Longobard, Grimoaldus I, Duke of Benevento (647-671), who promptly rushed to the Gargano peninsula.
This event greatly influenced the history of relations between the Longobards and the cult of St. Michael. When in the 9th century - alongside the traditional date of september 29 - May 8 started to emerge as a dies festus for the dedication of the Church of St. Michael on the Gargano peninsula, Longobard historiography set the apparition of Michael to that precise day, along with the victory of Grimoald over the Byzantines, in so doing creating a tradition which has been carried out uninterruptedly through the centuries.
After 650 A.D., the Gargano region became part of the Duchy of Benevento, coming under the political rule first of the Longobard Dukes and then the Longobard princes until the end of the 9th century.
The lands of the Siponto Diocese were placed under the jurisdiction of Barbatus, Bishop of Benevento, and the Gargano Sanctuary started to be viewed as the national Sanctuary of the Longobards and the Archangel their Guardian.
Its alliance with the Longobards led to certain changes being brought to the cult of St. Michael which, when it had initially arrived on the Gargano peninsula, had been a predominantly iatric cult.
The Longobards, a warrior population par excellence, facilitated the rediscovery of the saint’s other dimension, namely his role as the head of the celestial militia, making him a warrior, the patron of combatants.
Grimoaldus, Romualdus I, Romualdus II, Cunipert and Ansa (wife of Desiderius, King of Longobards) are some of the greatest exponents of the Longobard dynasty of Pavia and Benevento whose vicissitudes are closely linked with Gargano and the veneration of the Archangel who actually foretold and determined bellicose events for them, headed their army, assisted them during battle and struck fear into the hearts of their enemies.
They were indeed responsible for the major rebuilding and extension of the Sanctuary, so as to welcome and accommodate the large number of pilgrims visiting the site. From the mid-7th until the 8th century, the Sanctuary became the object of large-scale building programmes commissioned and financed by the Longobard Dukes. It is somewhat difficult to ascertain the precise nature and scale of individual interventions, although one date in particular is supported by epigraphic and literary records, namely the works undertaken by Romualdus I (66 -687) and Ansa (latter half of the 8th century).
The first building work carried out under Romualdus involved the construction of a new flight of steps leading up to the altar of the Footprints which then veered off to the south and joined with the walkway leading to the basilica grandis.
At a later date, the rock partition dividing the two caverns was demolished, thus creating a single large space which was reached by means of a new monumental flight of steps: this was built on a higher level than that constructed under Romualdus I, starting from the ancient southern entrance and flanked by two rows of arches which allowed an overall view of the cavern.
At the same time, the monumental flight of steps was linked by two spans, at the central body by a structure comprising five spans; an eighth span on the opposite side of the steps served as an entranceway into the structure which took the form of a 40-metre long arcade, a sort of cryptoporticus which also served the purpose of offering temporary shelter to pilgrims (hospitium).
The epitaph on the tomb of Queen Ansa, wife of Desiderius, King of the Longobards (756-774), recalls various works carried out under the Queen for the purpose of assuring ampla tecta pastumque to the pilgrims:
Securus iam carpe viam, peregrinus ab oris
Occiduis quisquis venerandi culmina Petri
Garganiamque petis rupem venerabilis antri.
Huius ab auxilio tutus non tela latronis
Frigora vel nimbos furva sub nocte timebis:
Ampla simul nam tecta tibi pastumque paravit
“In certainty, embark upon this journey,
whosoever you might be, pilgrim from the
lands of the West, who set off towards the
city of the venerable peter and the Gargano
rock of the venerable cavern. safeguarded
through her intervention (scil. of Ansa) you
will have no need to fear either the arrows of
pillagers, or the cold, or the dark night
clouds: for you (scil. the Queen Ansa)
provided ample refuge and food”.
This epitaph, probably composed by Paul the Deacon, bears witness to the fact that pilgrims hailing from central-southern europe (occiduae orae) customarily visited culmina petri (Rome) and Garganiam rupem, where they found both aid and hospitality.