St. Michael Archangel

Stefano da Putignano's sculpture of St. Michael the Archangel is located in the Sanctuary of Monte Laureto, near Putignano, a church set in a rough-walled cave in the mountainside (now beneath a hospital, accessible through the Putignano Pro Loco). This cave church on a mountain echoes the major Pugliese pilgrimage destination, the Santuario dell'Arcangelo Michele, Gargano. Cave chapels are fairly common in this part of Puglia and neighboring Basilicata, a region in which the landscape is punctuated by caves and underground corridors, with sometimes spectacular stalagtites, stalagmites, and other rock formations. Having a church in a rough cave is both a matter of local pride and also harkening back to ancient times and therefore the early Church. Indeed a longstanding local tradition held that this cave was originally a temple of Apollo, later converted into a Christian church. This is unlikely, as there are no documents for a place of worship in this cave until the fourteenth century, but the legend suggests the kind of associations the site would have held as a local antiquity, seeming in its structure to reach back to time immemorial. One story even asserted that the sculpture of St. Michael was originally an image of Apollo! The sculpture of St. Michael, made around 1506, gazes down with a calm expression that contrasts with his raised sword, which is ready to strike down upon the demon at his feet. Stefano has sculpted the angel in a realistic 16th-century cuirass, with minute beading along the edge, and outfitted him with a matching shield, both with a raised sunburst pattern. The fine original polychromy, partially preserved, brings the angel's face to almost glowing life, his beauty in contrast to the demon, a monstrous dragon-like composite with bat wings. (The dark coloring of the demon, contrasting with the pale, blonde angel, reflects the racist associations with dark skin prevalent in the period.) The angel has already cut great gashes into the demon, who cowers below. The helmet, chain, and wings were added at a later date. The statue has undergone restoration. The niche, with its carved pilasters, was likely made by Stefano da Putignano in 1521, when the niche on the other side of the church was created to house a Stefano da Putignano sculpture of St. Sebastian (now in the Collegiata di San Pietro, Putignano). These niches form a kind of classical procenium, in contrast to the rough form of the cave. Two of the scenes in this niche (second from the top on each pilaster) show stories of the Arcangel Michael, but the others are full of composite monsters and what appear to be obscene sexual acts, perhaps meant to expand upon the sins that the angel is conquering. In the spandrels above the arch, two male figures squat, their legs splayed to display their genitals. The nice has suffered over time -- one scene is missing, and the polychromy is only partly preserved. Photograph(s) licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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