By Norman Douglas
Public Domain Books
Why has the exalted archangel chosen for an abode this reeking cell, rather than some well-built temple in the sunshine? “As symbolizing a ray of light that penetrates into the gloom,” so they will tell you. It is more likely that he entered it as an extirpating warrior, to oust that heathen shape which Strabo describes as dwelling in its dank recesses, and to take possession of the cleft in the name of Christianity. Sant’ Angelo is one of many places where Michael has performed the duty of Christian Hercules, cleanser of Augean stables.
For the rest, this cave-worship is older than any god or devil. It is the cult of the feminine principle–a relic of that aboriginal obsession of mankind to shelter in some Cloven Rock of Ages, in the sacred womb of Mother Earth who gives us food and receives us after death. Grotto-apparitions, old and new, are but the popular explanations of this dim primordial craving, and hierophants of all ages have understood the commercial value of the holy shudder which penetrates in these caverns to the heart of worshippers, attuning them to godly deeds. So here, close beside the altar, the priests are selling fragments of the so-called “Stone of Saint Michael.” The trade is brisk.
The statuette of the archangel preserved in this subterranean chapel is a work of the late Renaissance. Though savouring of that mawkish elaboration which then began to taint local art and literature and is bound up with the name of the poet Marino, it is still a passably virile figure. But those countless others, in churches or over house-doors–do they indeed portray the dragon-killer, the martial prince of angels? This amiable child with girlish features–can this be the Lucifer of Christianity, the Sword of the Almighty? Quis ut Deus! He could hardly hurt a fly.
The hoary winged genius of Chaldea who has absorbed the essence of so many solemn deities has now, in extreme old age, entered upon a second childhood and grown altogether too youthful for his role, undergoing a metimorphosis beyond the boundaries of legendary probability or common sense; every trace of divinity and manly strength has been boiled out of him. So young and earthly fair, he looks, rather, like some pretty boy dressed up for a game with toy sword and helmet–one wants to have a romp with him. No warrior this! C’est beau, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.
The gods, they say, are ever young, and a certain sensuous and fleshly note is essential to those of Italy if they are to retain the love of their worshippers. Granted. We do not need a scarred and hirsute veteran; but we need, at least, a personage capable of wielding the sword, a figure something like this:–
His starry helm unbuckled show’d his prime In manhood where youth ended; by his side As in a glist’ring zodiac hung the sword, Satan’s dire dread, and in his hand the spear. . . .
There! That is an archangel of the right kind.
And the great dragon, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, has suffered a similar transformation. He is shrunk into a poor little reptile, the merest worm, hardly worth crushing.
But how should a sublime conception like the apocalyptic hero appeal to the common herd? These formidable shapes emerge from the dusk, offspring of momentous epochs; they stand aloof at first, but presently their luminous grandeur is dulled, their haughty contour sullied and obliterated by attrition. They are dragged down to the level of their lowest adorers, for the whole flock adapts its pace to that of the weakest lamb. No self-respecting deity will endure this treatment–to be popularized and made intelligible to a crowd. Divinity comprehended of the masses ceases to be efficacious; the Egyptians and Brahmans understood that. It is not giving gods a chance to interpret them in an incongruous and unsportsmanlike fashion. But the vulgar have no idea of propriety or fair play; they cannot keep at the proper distance; they are for ever taking liberties. And, in the end, the proudest god is forced to yield.
We see this same fatality in the very word Cherub. How different an image does this plump and futile infant evoke to the stately Minister of the Lord, girt with a sword of flame! We see it in the Italian Madonna of whom, whatever her mental acquirements may have been, a certain gravity of demeanour is to be presupposed, and who, none the less, grows more childishly smirking every day; in her Son who–hereabouts at least–has doffed all the serious attributes of manhood and dwindled into something not much better than a doll. It was the same in days of old. Apollo (whom Saint Michael has supplanted), and Eros, and Aphrodite–they all go through a process of saccharine deterioration. Our fairest creatures, once they have passed their meridian vigour, are liable to be assailed and undermined by an insidious diabetic tendency.
It is this coddling instinct of mankind which has reduced Saint Michael to his present state. And an extraneous influence has worked in the same direction–the gradual softening of manners within historical times, that demasculinization which is an inevitable concomitant of increasing social security. Divinity reflects its human creators and their environment; grandiose or warlike gods become superfluous, and finally incomprehensible, in humdrum days of peace. In order to survive, our deities (like the rest of us) must have a certain plasticity. If recalcitrant, they are quietly relieved of their functions, and forgotten. This is what has happened in Italy to God the Father and the Holy Ghost, who have vanished from the vulgar Olympus; whereas the devil, thanks to that unprincipled versatility for which he is famous, remains ever young and popular.
The art-notions of the Cinque-Cento are also to blame; indeed, so far as the angelic shapes of south Italy are concerned, the influence of the Renaissance has been wholly malefic. Aliens to the soil, they were at first quite unknown–not one is pictured in the Neapolitan catacombs. Next came the brief period of their artistic glory; then the syncretism of the Renaissance, when these winged messengers were amalgamated with pagan amoretti and began to flutter in foolish baroque fashion about the Queen of Heaven, after the pattern of the disreputable little genii attendant upon a Venus of a bad school. That same instinct which degraded a youthful Eros into the childish Cupid was the death-stroke to the pristine dignity and holiness of angels. Nowadays, we see the perversity of it all; we have come to our senses and can appraise the much-belauded revival at its true worth; and our modern sculptors will rear you a respectable angel, a grave adolescent, according to the best canons of taste–should you still possess the faith that once requisitioned such works of art.
We travellers acquaint ourselves with the lineage of this celestial Messenger, but it can hardly be supposed that the worshippers now swarming at his shrine know much of these things. How shall one discover their real feelings in regard to this great cave-saint and his life and deeds?
Well, some idea of this may be gathered from the literature sold on the spot. I purchased three of these modern tracts printed respectively at Bitonto, Molfetta and Naples. The “Popular Song in honour of St. Michael" contains this verse:
Nell’ ora della morte Ci salvi dal!’ inferno E a Regno Sempiterno Ci guidi per pieta.
Ci guidi per pieta. . . . This is the Mercury-heritage. Next, the “History and Miracles of St. Michael” opens with a rollicking dialogue in verse between the archangel and the devil concerning a soul; it ends with a goodly list, in twenty-five verses, of the miracles performed by the angel, such as helping women in childbirth, curing the blind, and other wonders that differ nothing from those wrought by humbler earthly saints. Lastly, the “Novena in Onore di S. Michele Arcangelo,” printed in 1910 (third edition) with ecclesiastical approval, has the following noteworthy paragraph on the
“DEVOTION FOR THE SACRED STONES OF THE GROTTO OF ST. MICHAEL.
“It is very salutary to hold in esteem the STONES which are taken from the sacred cavern, partly because from immemorial times they have always been held in veneration by the faithful and also because they have been placed as relics of sepulchres and altars. Furthermore, it is known that during the plague which afflicted the kingdom of Naples in the year 1656, Monsignor G. A. Puccini, archbishop of Manfredonia, recommended every one to carry devoutly on his person a fragment of the sacred STONE, whereby the majority were saved from the pestilence, and this augmented the devotion bestowed on them.”
The cholera is on the increase, and this may account for the rapid sale of the STONES at this moment.
This pamphlet also contains a litany in which the titles of the archangel are enumerated. He is, among other things, Secretary of God, Liberator from Infernal Chains, Defender in the Hour of Death, Custodian of the Pope, Spirit of Light, Wisest of Magistrates, Terror of Demons, Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of the Lord, Lash of Heresies, Adorer of the Word Incarnate, Guide of Pilgrims, Conductor of Mortals: Mars, Mercury, Hercules, Apollo, Mithra–what nobler ancestry can angel desire? And yet, as if these complicated and responsible functions did not suffice for his energies, he has twenty others, among them being that of “Custodian of the Holy Family “–who apparently need a protector, a Monsieur Paoli, like any mortal royalties.
“Blasphemous rubbish!” I can hear some Methodist exclaiming. And one may well be tempted to sneer at those pilgrims for the more enlightened of whom such literature is printed. For they are unquestionably a repulsive crowd: travel-stained old women, under-studies for the Witch of Endor; dishevelled, anaemic and dazed-looking girls; boys, too weak to handle a spade at home, pathetically uncouth, with mouths agape and eyes expressing every grade of uncontrolled emotion–from wildest joy to downright idiotcy. How one realizes, down in this cavern, the effect upon some cultured ancient like Rutilius Namatianus of the catacomb-worship among those early Christian converts, those men who shun the light, drawn as they were from the same social classes towards the same dark underground rites! One can neither love nor respect such people; and to affect pity for them would be more consonant with their religion than with my own.
But it is perfectly easy to understand them. For thirteen centuries this pilgrim-movement has been going on. Thirteen centuries? No. This site was an oracle in heathen days, and we know that such were frequented by men not a whit less barbarous and bigoted than their modern representatives–nothing is a greater mistake than to suppose that the crowds of old Rome and Athens were more refined than our own ("Demosthenes, sir, was talking to an assembly of brutes”). For thirty centuries then, let us say, a deity has attracted the faithful to his shrine–Sant’ Angelo has become a vacuum, as it were, which must be periodically filled up from the surrounding country. These pilgrimages are in the blood of the people: infants, they are carried there; adults, they carry their own offspring; grey-beards, their tottering steps are still supported by kindly and sturdier fellow-wanderers.
Popes and emperors no longer scramble up these slopes; the spirit of piety has abated among the great ones of the earth; so much is certain. But the rays of light that strike the topmost branches have not yet penetrated to the rank and seething undergrowth. And then–what else can one offer to these Abruzzi mountain-folk? Their life is one of miserable, revolting destitution. They have no games or sports, no local racing, clubs, cattle-shows, fox-hunting, politics, rat-catching, or any of those other joys that diversify the lives of our peasantry. No touch of humanity reaches them, no kindly dames send them jellies or blankets, no cheery doctor enquires for their children; they read no newspapers or books, and lack even the mild excitements of church versus chapel, or the vicar’s daughter’s love-affair, or the squire’s latest row with his lady–nothing! Their existence is almost bestial in its blankness. I know them–I have lived among them. For four months in the year they are cooped up in damp dens, not to be called chambers, where an Englishman would deem it infamous to keep a dog–cooped up amid squalor that must be seen to be believed; for the rest of the time they struggle, in the sweat of their brow, to wrest a few blades of corn from the ungrateful limestone. Their visits to the archangel–these vernal and autumnal picnics–are their sole form of amusement.
The movement is said to have diminished since the early nineties, when thirty thousand of them used to come here annually. It may well be the case; but I imagine that this is due not so much to increasing enlightenment as to the depopulation caused by America; many villages have recently been reduced to half their former number of inhabitants.
And here they kneel, candle in hand, on the wet flags of this foetid and malodorous cave, gazing in rapture upon the blandly beaming idol, their sensibilities tickled by resplendent priests reciting full-mouthed Latin phrases, while the organ overhead plays wheezy extracts from “La Forza del Destino” or the Waltz out of Boito’s “Mefistofele”... for sure, it must be a foretaste of Heaven! And likely enough, these are “the poor in heart” for whom that kingdom is reserved.
One may call this a debased form of Christianity. Whether it would have been distasteful to the feelings of the founder of that cult is another question, and, debased or not, it is at least alive and palpitating, which is more than can be said of certain other varieties. But the archangel, as was inevitable, has suffered a sad change. His fairest attribute of Light-bringer, of Apollo, is no longer his own; it has been claimed and appropriated by the “Light of the World,” his new master. One by one, his functions have been stripped from him, all save in name, as happens to men and angels alike, when they take service under “jealous” lords.
What is now left of Saint Michael, the glittering hierarch? Can he still endure the light of sun? Or has he not shrivelled into a spectral Hermes, a grisly psychopomp, bowing his head in minished glory, and leading men’s souls no longer aloft but downwards–down to the pale regions of things that have been? And will it be long ere he, too, is thrust by some flaming Demogorgon into these same realms of Minos, into that shadowy underworld where dwell Saturn, and Kronos, and other cracked and shivered ideals?
So I mused that afternoon, driving down the slopes from Sant’ Angelo comfortably sheltered against the storm, while the generous mountain wine sped through my veins, warming my fancy. Then, at last, the sun came out in a sudden burst of light, opening a rift in the vapours and revealing the whole chain of the Apennines, together with the peaked crater of Mount Vulture.
The spectacle cheered me, and led me to think that such a day might worthily be rounded off by a visit to Sipontum, which lies a few miles beyond Manfredonia on the Foggia road. But I approached the subject cautiously, fearing that the coachman might demur at this extra work. Far from it. I had gained his affection, and he would conduct me whithersoever I liked. Only to Sipontum? Why not to Foggia, to Naples, to the ends of the earth? As for the horse, he was none the worse for the trip, not a bit the worse; he liked nothing better than running in front of a carriage; besides, e suo dovere– it was his duty.
Sipontum is so ancient that it was founded, they say, by that legendary Diomed who acted in the same capacity for Beneven-tum, Arpi, and other cities. But this record does not satisfy Monsignor Sarnelli, its historian, according to whom it was already a flourishing town when Shem, first son of Noah, became its king. He reigned about the year 1770 of the creation of the world. Two years after the deluge he was 100 years old, and at that age begat a son Arfaxad, after whose birth he lived yet another five hundred years. The second king of Sipontum was Appulus, who ruled in the year 2213. . . . Later on, Saint Peter sojourned here, and baptized a few people.
Of Sipontum nothing is left; nothing save a church, and even that built only yesterday–in the eleventh century; a far-famed church, in the Pisan style, with wrought marble columns reposing on lions, sculptured diamond ornaments, and other crafty stonework that gladdens the eye. It used to be the seat of an archbishopric, and its fine episcopal chairs are now preserved at Sant’ Angelo; and you may still do homage to the authentic Byzantine Madonna painted on wood by Saint Luke, brown-complexioned, long-nosed, with staring eyes, and holding the Infant on her left arm. Earthquakes and Saracen incursions ruined the town, which became wholly abandoned when Man-fredonia was built with its stones.
Of pagan antiquity there are a few capitals lying about, as well as granite columns in the curious old crypt. A pillar stands all forlorn in a field; and quite close to the church are erected two others–the larger of cipollino, beautified by a patina of golden lichen; a marble well-head, worn half through with usage of ropes, may be found buried in the rank grass. The plain whereon stood the great city of Sipus is covered, now, with bristly herbage. The sea has retired from its old beach, and half-wild cattle browse on the site of those lordly quays and palaces. Not a stone is left. Malaria and desolation reign supreme.
It is a profoundly melancholy spot. Yet I was glad of the brief vision. I shall have fond and enduring memories of that sanctuary–the travertine of its artfully carven fabric glowing orange-tawny in the sunset; of the forsaken plain beyond, full of ghostly phantoms of the past.
As for Manfredonia–it is a sad little place, when the south wind moans and mountains are veiled in mists.