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San Miguel en Excelsis (St. Michael in Excelsis), a sanctuary with more than a thousand years of history, stands high up on the Sierra of Aralar, just below the peak of Mount Artxueta, from where you can enjoy a stunning view. Its interior houses a Romanesque altarpiece, a masterpiece of European enamelwork. This spot will speak to you of the legend of the dragon and Teodosio de Goñi, of its Charlemagne-related past, and of the remote times of the dolmens that can today be found scattered amongst the fields and the beautiful beech woods in the surrounding area.
St. Michael in Excelsis is an austere church with three naves, divided into four sections, which stands on the Sierra of Aralar. It is located at a strategic point on the peak of Mount Artxueta which can be accessed by road from Lekunberri and gives a spectacular view that encompasses the Arakil or Barranca corridor, San Donato and the sierras of Urbasa and Andia. There is also a road from Uharte-Arakil, to the south of the sierra.
The present church was built during the first half of the twelfth century as an extension to the Romanesque building dating from the beginning of the eleventh century. It is an austere and sober building with little decoration. The chapel was built between 1170 and 1180, from when some of the ornamental features on the doors and the apse of the Epistle date.
The Sanctuary is known across half the world for the Aralar Altarpiece, a work of art 2 metres long by 1.14 metres high which presides over the presbytery of the church. This masterpiece of Romanesque art is a frontispiece of enamels and rock crystal from the beginning of the twelfth century. The altarpiece was stolen by the famous art thief Eric "The Belgian" in 1979. Between 1981 and 1985, sixteen of the eighteen stolen medallions were recovered, and 191 of the 286 precious stones, and after its restoration is was returned to the Sanctuary in 1991.
Also in the Sanctuary you can see the image of St. Michael, a reliquary from the 18th century in gilded silver which represents the archangel with his wings unfolded and arms held high, holding up the cross over his head, where an old wooden carving is kept; the reliquary which, according to tradition, was left by the angel himself in this spot. The image is carried through dozens of Navarran towns every spring to be greeted by the local residents and authorities.
San Miguel is one of the best-known spiritual centres in Navarre and a place of legends such as that of Teodosio de Goñi. The story goes that Don Teodosio, the Lord of the fiefdom, lived in the Navarrese valley of Goñi in the eighth century. On his return from war with the Arabs, he came across the devil disguised as a hermit on the road, who told him that his wife had deceived him with a servant. On reaching his home, Teodosio stabbed the couple lying in the bed with his sword, not realising that they were his parents. As a penance, the Pope condemned him to walk the mountains carrying a cross and bound with chains until they broke. Wandering across the Sierra of Aralar one day, a dragon appeared before him and Teodosio invoked St. Michael, who killed the beast and freed him from his chains. Right there and then, Teodosio built the sanctuary in which his chains are kept and the reliquary of St. Michael is venerated.
The entire Sierra of Aralar is a paradise for lovers of rambling and hiking: on one side of the sierra is the Plazaola 'Green Route', a walk that will take you to the spring of the river Larraun or a visit to the caves of Astitz, and on the other side is the Barranca, with its dolmen routes and towns such as Uharte Arakil, famous for its sheepdog trials. From there you can also climb a track up to the sanctuary. In winter, if it snows heavily, you can practice cross-country skiing.
This chapel of the twelfth century, Romanesque, stands on an older, eighth century, in a region plagued by Neolithic dolmens, so it is assumed that since ancient times the region was considered a sacred enclave.
In iconography, representing the San Miguel is wearing armor and a helmet on his head, but not always. The helmet of the saint in the chapel is a little peculiar, here we surprise us to see the image of San Miguel. Some see an angel instead of an astronaut diving, but I always seemed more a diver.
The explanation is simple. The original image, the tenth century, much revered, was stolen and only fragments were recovered badly damaged, so they built a shrine, a shrine but not many, but as an angel or winged humanoid figure with a kind of diving head, with a little door in the face, which would be the shrine, where the pieces were placed in the first image, and another in the chest with cross pieces that came down from heaven San Miguel when he killed the dragon.
It is not known what was the original figure, his head we can suspect it was peculiar because it was the first stolen, leaving the decapitated saint. There are two versions of the current reconstruction, or the actual figure would have the original carved wood body, round head plus the shrine and the cross supports that were added after the theft in the eighteenth century, or the entire original figure disappeared and the new one was carved in wood in 1756 and covered with gilded silver. The second is more likely, unless unusual over the years the image has suffered more robberies and transformations.
The first shrine was destroyed during the Muslim invasion of the peninsula, and have that rebuilt it one woman, an elderly woman who was climbing up the mountain and carrying stones and wooden beams. No one knows her name, some call her "Maru", but she did not work alone, she had the help of the angels who descended from heaven to build her a new chapel.
For fans of the unidentified flying lights or objects, this is a good place for sighting, or so they say.