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main index © Jeff Matthews entry June 2015 - update July 2015
he Hermitage of San Michele di Montenero
The small Benedictine hermitage of St. Michael is 30 km/20 miles east of Salerno in the Picentine mountains, about 4 km NE of the town of Campagna. It is wedged into a shell-like hollow 1000 meters above sea level on the side of a high cliff overlooking the Trigento river valley below. Friends of mine from Napoli Underground (NUg) have been out twice to find it. The first time they got close; the second time they sighted it from across the valley. The next time, they promise me, will be for real—unless it really is a phantom. But it's not—the picture on the right is one they took from a distance on the second outing.
The space that contains the buildings is called the Grotto of San Michele at Montenero, and it has much lore connected to it. Tradition says that the grotto belonged to the Devil. In the 10th century, however, St. Michael, himself, showed up disguised as a shepherd for his own festival in May, went to the grotto and told the devil he wanted to look around. Before leaving the mountainside, archangel Michael formed some stones into the shape of a cross on the ground, which drove the devil away with Michael in hot pursuit. They created such a din and racket that you can still hear it during the night in these hills.
That and other tales thus brought about, in the 10th century, the founding of a small hermitage dedicated to St. Michael. The original structure was tiny and inhabited by a handful of hermits—three at first, then five, and maybe never many more than that. (The current premises have eight rooms.) The site became a goal for pilgrims. A small church was finished in 1257. Starting in 1630 the hermitage began to be restored and expanded, including, in the 1700s, a 60-step stairway to the entrance and marble for the 14 stations of the Cross. Much of that disappeared through theft and vandalism. These hills were, after all, also home to bandits.
Yet the hermitage survives and has done so for a very long period of time. It has been kept up mostly by religious factions in the surrounding communities in and around Campagna. There are trails up from Avigliano and Puglietta, but don't take it lightly. It's a hike.
(You may read the account of the NUg Second Expedition on their website at this link.)
(Devotion to the Archangel Michael is a fascinating part of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths.
There is more on that in this entry on the Longobards/Lombards in Italy.)
July 2015 -
The third time was a charm. You can read the entire accounts of expeditions 1, 2 and 3 (plus photos) at the NUg website here, but, briefly, the second time fizzled out like the first time--although they got farther. But the third time? The leader writes,
As is often the case when deciding on goals for our outings, we put ourselves at the mercy of the creative afflatus and perverse fantasies of our “woods witch”, Selene. After pouring over ancient texts, browsing the web, and reading coffee grounds, she usually manages to come up with some intriguing hypotheses as to where we should go and what we should see. Her latest hallucin... vision (going back to last month) revealed three wayfarers unto her; they trekked through dense woods, climbed high mountains, forded mighty waters and reached, at the end of the “journey”, the magical hermitage set in the steep flank of the Sacred Mountain. How could we say 'no? The journey was by no means simple, and, indeed, took us three attempts in a row during which, as in the olden quests of ritual initiations, we came ever closer to the consciousness induced by the knowledge of places.You know they're going to get there. They had to struggle with brambles and underbrush and cope with vague directions from a pamphlet ("Avoid the steep slopes"...really?) But at the end...
A few minutes passed—20 maybe 30, maybe more because now time seemed to make no sense to us anymore; had we perhaps given up? Then we saw the “grassy clearing” and then the “ancient stone cross”. We were there. An ancient stairway, a rusted iron gate with a knocker permanently open from the rust of ages, the passageway to the “characteristic grotto” and one last climb up a stepped ramp to face out over the void and watch the nervous flight of soaring hawks from this highest place, this Hermitage of San Michele. It was done! We had made it.
photos by Napoli Undergroundto main index/home page