At the entry to the Basilica and shrine built there centuries ago we can read the inscription: "This is the House of God, the Gate of Heaven, St Michael himself consecrated." Placed on top of the mountain this singular Basilica made up of a complex of constructions around the grotto from various eras, gives evidence of a good fifteen centuries of history. From remote times this is a place of pardon and prayer, famous in the entire Christian world. An anonymous writer, who lived more than a thousand years ago, describes it thus: “The shrine of Saint Michael is known and extolled everywhere not for the splendour of its marble, but for the prodigious events that took palce here; of modest form, it is nevertheless, rich in celestial virtue, because the Archangel Michael himself deigned to set up and consecrate it, who being mindful of human frailty, came down from heaven so that men could participate in things divine in that temple". We hope you will have an interesting and fruitful visit in this holy place, born through the inscrutable will of Our Lord on the high peak of the rugged and suggestive Gargano and as if suspended between the sky and the sea, between the divine and the human" - we read from the shrine website.
The first apparitions of the archangel Michael in Western Europe were granted to the Bishop of Sipontum in Apulia. Three times the Archangel appeared, nightly, the last time on September 29, 493. The Archangel indicated the transformation into a Christian church of a grotto sacred to Mithras, on Monte Tumba. Miraculously, when the bishop and companions arrived, they found that a primitive altar had already been erected, covered with a vermilion altar cloth and surmounted by a Cross; moreover, according to the legend, they found the footprint of Saint Michael in the rock. With immense joy the holy bishop offered the first divine Sacrifice. It was 29 September.
The grotto itself is the only place of worship not consecrated by human hand and over the centuries has received the title of “Celestial Basilica". An overpowering desire to abandon oneself to divine pardon insinuates itself in the heart, it is the invitation of the Archangel warrior to overcome our weaknesses and continue the journey, strong from the forgiveness of all our sins. The church not consecrated by human hand, is in two distinct parts: the one as soon as you enter is constructed in brick-work and called the Angevin Nave, while the other is in the natural state, a cavern made by nature itself in the calcareous rock. At the entrance we are struck by the majesty of the Angevin nave but looking immediately to the right we find ourselves before a small altar erected in honour of Saint Francis; it is a reminder of his visit to our shrine in the distant 1216. As tradition tells us Saint Francis arrived at Monte Sant’Angelo to obtain the angelic pardon, feeling himself to be unworthy to enter the grotto, he stopped in prayer and recollection at the entrance, kissed the ground and carved on a stone the sign of the cross in the form of “T” (tau). In biblical language the sign “T” is the symbol of salvation. From this account we can understand the importance the Poor Man of Assisi attributed to this grotto for the special dignity of the holy place and for the salvation of souls. A few steps further on from the altar of Saint Francis a unique spectacle of its kind is unfolded before our eyes: the grotto, with an irregular rocky vault, which has received millions of pilgrims over the centuries and the place where many sinners have found again forgiveness and peace. Here, each one of us feels like the prodigal son who goes back to his father’s house, led and protected by Saint Michael. The interior of this grotto, not consecrated by human hand gives witness to its centuries-old history by its various elements. The variety of styles creates a single harmony which gives glory to God almost expressing in the perfection of its art the very name of the Archangel: Who is like God!
The Golden Legend (Legenda Aurea) - link can be found on the sidebar of this blog - the compendium of Christian devotions compiled by Jacobus de Varagine between 1260-1275, narrates the first of the apparitions of Michael: “When he appeared in the Mount of Gargan. This mountain is in Naples, which is named Gargan and is by the city named Syponte. And in the year of our Lord three hundred and ninety, was in the same city of Syponte a man which was named Garganus, which, after some books, had taken that name of the mountain, or else the mountain took the name of the man. And he was right rich, and had a great multitude of sheep and beasts, and as they pastured about the sides of the mountains it happened that a bull left the other beasts, and went upon high on the mountain and returned not home again with the other beasts. Then this rich man, the owner, took a great multitude of servants, and did do seek this bull all about, and at the last he was found on high on the mountain by the entry of a hole or a cave. And then the master was wroth because he had strayed alone from other beasts, and made one of his servants to shoot an arrow at him. And anon the arrow returned with the wind and smote him that had shot it, wherewith they of the city were troubled with this thing, and went to the bishop and inquired of him what was to be done in this thing, that was so wonderful. And then he commanded them to fast three days and to pray unto God. And when this was done Saint Michael appeared to the bishop, saying: Know ye that this man is so hurt by my will. I am Michael the archangel, which will that this place be worshipped in earth, and will have it surely kept. And therefore I have proved that I am keeper of this place by the demonstrance and showing of this thing. And then anon the bishop and they of the city went with procession unto that place, and durst not enter into it, but made their prayers withoutforth.”
Pope Gelasius I (reigned 492-496) directed that a basilica be erected enclosing the space. The Basilica di San Giovanni in Tumba is the final resting-place of the Lombard king Rothari (d. 652). To Michael's dramatic later intercession, appearing with flaming sword atop the mountain, in the midst of a storm on the eve of the battle, the Lombards of Sipontum attributed their victory (May 8, 663) over the Greeks loyal to the Byzantine emperor, and so, in commemoration of this victory, the church of Sipontum instituted a special feast honoring the Archangel, on May 8, which then spread throughout the Catholic Church. Since the time of Pius V it has been formalized as Apparitio S. Michaelis.
Gargano shrine website offers virtual visit to the shrine (please, click tiny green highlighted numbers on the main picture for directions). We can read more about origin and history of the shrine and about St Michael statue venerated there with prayers and plenary Indulgences attached to it.
Credits: all information and text adopted from the official website of the shrine on Gargano