Sunday 15 March 2009

St Michael and mounts

Sorry for the long silence; the press of parochial and other matters rendered it inevitable.
Having celebrated the first Mass of Sunday last night at Upper Beeding, I returned home and went to sit in front of the television for a while. I don't do that very often, but I'm not feeling on top form right now. There was an edition of Time Team being broadcast—perhaps you saw it too. For those outwith these shores, Time Team is an amateur archaeology programme which can, if you're in the right mood, be quite entertaining. This week the team were excavating two little chapels dedicated to St Michael at Looe in Cornwall. They correctly drew attention to the fact that there are a lot of chapels on the top of hills in the South West of England dedicated to St Michael—St Michael's Mount being the most famous, no doubt parallel (though they didn't say this) to the more famous Mont St Michel over the other side of the Channel. One of these little chapels was on an island in Looe Harbour, over a treacherous and rocky little bit of sea—there were stories of many pilgrims drowning on the way. The island is identified on 16th Century maps as being 'St Michael's Island' but for some reason is now 'St George's Island', perhaps because it was important strategically at the time of the Spanish Armada. For more information on the island, go here.
The chapel on the mainland mirrored the island chapel almost exactly, and it was suggested (probably correctly in my opinion) that the mainland chapel served as the focus of the pilgrimage when it was simply too dangerous to risk the short sea crossing. This suggests that the pilgrimage there was for one day only in the year, otherwise surely pilgrims could have waited for a calmer day. They found in the chapels a full tomb in the floor before the altar on the island, and in the mainland chapel floor a corresponding, but much smaller, space, which they supposed to be a sort of reliquary. Well yes; this lends support, I think, to their theory that the mainland chapel was a sort of foul-weather spare building. If the tomb contained some significant burial, then some bones could be kept in the tomb in the mainland chapel for the veneration of pilgrims. Enough: to the point of the post.
An expert was asked the reason why so many churches were dedicated to St Michael on the tops of hills, and the reply came that, well, he was an angel, and angels fly, so they wanted to be nearer him (I'm paraphrasing).
Well, I didn't think much of that. The thought suddenly flew (as it were) into my mind that the Sarum Liturgy keeps a feast of St Michael in Monte Tumba, on October 16th, as it happens, when sea crossings might very well be risky. In various translations of the Sarum Missal I have seen, this feast is generally translated as 'St Michael in the Mountain Tomb'.
That always sounded rather dodgy to me, rather second nocturnish, (?nocturnal?) if I can put it like that. [n.b. it used to be a rather recherché clerical insult to say 'you lie like a second nocturn!']*
However, a little research reveals that the feast really is St Michael in Monte Tumba—i.e. the apparition of St Michael on Mount Tumba in Apulia—now called Monte Gargano, or Monte Sant'Angelo, (see it here) near the sea, as it happens, where the apparition is commemorated on May 8th each year—a rather balmier season. If you fancy making a pilgrimage, it isn't that far from S.Giovanni Rotondo, so you could take in Padre Pio as well. Apparently the spot was originally sacred to Mithras, which might account for the tomb reference. The shrine is still functioning; you can make a virtual tour here.
The account can be found in the Bollandists, 29th September, Vol 8 (you can now find the whole Acta Sanctorum on line) and is related in Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend.
Wikipedia has this to say:
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 [=Manfredonia] 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 although it originally did not commemorate the apparition, but the victory of the barbarian Lombards over the Orthodox Greeks, faithful subjects of the Byzantine Emperor in the East and the patriarch of Constantinople, and thorns in the papal side.
So that's why Rome keeps it on May 8th. I have no explanation of October 16th [but see a very interesting contribution by Gem of the Ocean in the combox]. And, I am satisfied, that is why there are so many shrines to St Michael on the tops of hills and near the sea.

* The second nocturn of Matins of saints' feasts, until the mid 20th-century reforms, usually consists of biography, or, better, hagiography, and sometimes strays, shall we say, into the legendary.


Little Black Sambo said...

Do you know St Michael's, Brentor, on Dartmoor, built on a granite outcrop? Very exciting to visit in winter. In Somerset there are St Michael's churches on Glastonbury Tor and on the Mump at Burrow Bridge.

gemoftheocean said...

Interesting post, Father. I expect the clues to "why October 16th" question might well be answered in your own post. IIRC Mithraism was especially liked by Roman Soldiers.

The church liked to replace the old beliefs with new ones. On the article in the old Catholic encyclopedia on Mithraism, it stats that the 16th of every month was dedicated to Mithra.

St. Michael, is the one we ask to defend us in battle, etc. So perhaps that's why his feast is on the why October....

ARticle on Mithraism is here.

There is also this para. in the same publication re: St. Michael:

"In Normandy St. Michael is the patron of mariners in his famous sanctuary at Mont-Saint-Michel in the Diocese of Coutances. He is said to have appeared there, in 708, to St. Aubert, Bishop of Avranches. In Normandy his feast "S. Michaelis in periculo maris" or "in Monte Tumba" was universally celebrated on 18 Oct., the anniversary of the dedication of the first church, 16 Oct., 710; the feast is now confined to the Diocese of Coutances. In Germany, after its evangelization, St. Michael replaced for the Christians the pagan god Wotan, to whom many mountains were sacred, hence the numerous mountain chapels of St. Michael all over Germany. " Full article here.

When do they estimate the chapels were built?

Pastor in Monte said...

Thanks Gem; a gem!
The chapels were medieval, on the site of earlier, Celtic, (i.e. post-Roman and pre-Norman—the Anglo-Saxons didn't get this far west, on the whole) foundations.

Ben Whitworth said...

Fascinating post & comments. I can only contribute a footnote, which is that the hilltop St Michaels are certainly not confined to the South-West of these islands. Looking out of my window here in Orkney, I can see a St Michael's Kirk on top of a hill. Present building 1836; dedication first recorded 1492; but the site was important in the Iron Age and probably the neolithic too, and it is quite possible that there was a very early church site, supplanting a pagan 'high place'.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of lowering the tone of this most interesting and erudite thread, I have in the dim past visited both St Michael's Mount and Mont St Michel, and it probably won't come as any surprise that the food and hospitatility were significantly better in the French version!

Anonymous said...

There's a very good Mithraeum near Hadrian's Wall if anyone's interested,here's a link:

berenike said...

Here's a confirmatory paragraph on Skellig Michael (you need to scroll down to p10).