St. Michael at the Castle of San’ Angelo, Rome
by Matthias Kabel
In the legends of St. Michael we read that in the sixth century, when the plague was raging in Rome, and processions threaded the streets chanting the service since known as the Great Litanies, the Archangel Michael appeared, hovering over the city. He alighted on the summit of the Mausoleum of Hadrian and sheathed his sword, from which blood was dripping. From that hour the plague was stayed, and from that day the Mausoleum, which is surmounted by a statue of the Archangel, has been called the Castle of Sant’ Angelo.
The legends also give an account of two appearances of St. Michael when he commanded the erection of churches—one at Monte Galgano, on the east coast of Italy, and the second at Avranches in Normandy. The first site was found to cover a wonderful stream of water, which cured many diseases, and made the church of Monte Galgano a much frequented place of pilgrimage.
The church in Normandy is on the celebrated Mont Saint Michael, and is famous in all Christian countries. From the time when the angel appeared to St. Aubert, the bishop, and commanded him
to build the church, this saint was greatly venerated in France, and was made patron of France and of the order which St. Louis instituted in his honor.
The first church erected in England was small, but Richard of Normandy and William the Conqueror raised a magnificent abbey, which overlooked the most picturesque scenery, and for this reason, if no other, remains a much frequented spot
The old English coin called an angel was so named from the representation of St. Michael which was stamped upon it.
Announcement of the Death of the Virgin Mary by Fra Filippo Lippi
The pictures of St Michael announcing to the Virgin Mary the time of her death, bear so strong a resemblance to those of the Annunciation, that it is necessary to remember that these have the
symbols of a palm on a lighted taper in the hand of the angel, instead of the lily of the Archangel Gabriel, as is seen in our illustration of a beautiful picture in the Florentine Academy.
The legend relates that on a certain day the heart of Mary was filled with an inexpressible longing to see her Son, and she wept sorely, when an angel clothed in light appeared before her, saluting her, and saying, “Hail, O Mary! Blessed by Him who hath given salvation to Israel! I bring thee here a branch of palm gathered in paradise; command that it be carried before thy bier in the day of thy death, for in three days thy soul shall leave thy body, and thou shalt enter into paradise where thy Son awaits thy coming.”
Mary answering, said, “If I have found grace in thy sight tell me thy name, and grant that the Apostles may be reunited to me, that in their presence I may give up my soul to God. Also, I pray thee, that after death my soul may not be affrighted by any spirit of darkness, nor any evil angel be given power over me.”
And the archangel replied, “My name is the Great and Wonderful. Doubt not that the Apostles shall be with thee to-day, for he who transported the prophet Habakkuk by the hair of his head to the lions’ den, can also bring hither the Apostles. Fear thou not the evil spirit, for thou hast bruised his head, and destroyed his kingdom.” And the angel departed, and the palm branch shed light from every leaf and sparkled as the stars of heaven.
And the duty of the archangel was thus fulfilled until he should again appear as Lord of Souls to receive the spirit of the Virgin, to guard it until it should again inhabit her sinless body.
Clement, Clara Erskine. Angels in Art
. Boston: L. C. Page and Company, 1898.
You can find free Archangel Art at Christian Image Source.
The representations of St. Michael as the Lord of Souls are less numerous than those of the subjects mentioned in Part 1, but are very interesting. In some votive pictures he appears as the protector of those who have struggled with evil, and gained a victory. In such pictures the angel has his foot upon the dragon, or holds a dragon’s head in his hand, and bears the banner of victory.
Again, Michael is represented with his scales engaged in weighing the souls of the dead; in such pictures he is unarmed, and bears a sceptre ending in a cross. The souls are typified by little naked human figures; the accepted spirits usually kneel in the scales, with hands clasped as in prayer; the attitude of the rejected souls expresses horror and agony, which is sometimes emphasized by the figure of a demon, impatient for his prey, who reaches out his talons, or his devil’s fork, to seize the doomed spirits.
Archangel Michael as the Lord of Souls from The Last Judgment
by Rogier van der Weden
Leonardo da Vinci represented the angel as presenting the balance to the Infant Jesus, who has the air of blessing the pious soul in the upper scale. Signorelli, about 1500, painted a picture of this subject, which is in the church of San Gregorio at Rome, in which the archangel, in a suit of mail, stands with his wings spread out, and the balance with full scales held above a fierce, open-mouthed dragon. The lance of the archangel has pierced through the under jaw of the beast and entered his body, making an ugly wound, and a hideous little demon, resting on his tiny black wings, is clutching the condemned spirits in the lower scale.
In pictures of the Assumption or Glorification of the Virgin, if St. Michael is present, it is in his office of Lord of Souls, as the legends of the Madonna teach that he received her spirit, and guarded it until it was again united with her sinless form.
The Translation of St. Catherine of Alexandria
by Heinrich Mucke
As Lord of Souls it is taught that St. Michael conducted the spirits of the just to heaven, and even cared for their bodies in some instances. The legend of St. Catherine of Alexandria teaches that her body was borne by angels over the desert and sea to the top of Mount Sinai, where it was buried, and later a monastery was built over her sepulchre. In the picture of the Translation of St. Catherine, shown above, St. Michael is one of the four celestial bearers of the martyr saint.
In rare instances St Michael was represented without wings. Such a figure standing on a dragon is a St. George, unless the balance is introduced. When the archangel stands upon the dragon with the balance in his hand, he appears in his double office as Conqueror of Satan and Lord of Souls. Memorial chapels and tombs were frequently decorated with this subject, a notable instance being that on the tomb of Henry VII., in Westminster Abbey.
In pictures of the Last Judgment, St. Michael is sometimes seen in the very act of weighing souls, symbolizing those of whom St. Paul said, “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”
Since the Archangel Michael was made the guardian of the Hebrew nation, he was naturally an important actor in many scenes connected with their history. It was he who succored Hagar in the wilderness (Genesis xxi., 17), who appeared to restrain Abraham from the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis xxii., 1 1). He brought the plagues on Egypt and led the Israelites on their journey. The Jews and early Christians believed that God spoke through the mouth of Michael in the Burning Bush, and by him sent the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. When Satan would have entered the body of Moses, in order to personate the prophet and deceive the Jews, it was Michael who contended with the Evil One, and buried the body in an unknown place, as is distinctly stated by Jude. Signorelli chose this as the subject of one of his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.
It was Michael who put blessings instead of curses into Balaam’s mouth (Numbers xxii., 35), who was with Joshua in the plain of Jericho (Joshua v., 13), who appeared to Gideon (Judges vi., 2), and delivered the three faithful Jews from the fiery furnace (Daniel iii., 25). This last subject is one of the earliest in Christian art, and was a symbol of the redemption of man by Jesus Christ. There are still other like offices which St. Michael filled as the protector of the Jews, while several important works are attributed to him in the Apochrypha and in the Legends of the Church.
For example, in the apocryphal story of Bel and the Dragon, it is related that when King Cyrus had thrown the prophet Daniel into the lions’ den, and he had been six days without food, the angel of the Lord appeared to the prophet Habakkuk in Jewry, when he had prepared a mess of potage for the reapers in his field, and the angel commanded Habakkuk to carry the potage to Babylon and give it to Daniel.
“Then Habakkuk said, ‘Lord, I never saw Babylon; neither do I know where the den is.’ Then the angel of the Lord took Habakkuk by the hair of his head, and set him in Babylon over the lions’ den, and Habakkuk cried, saying, ‘O Daniel, Daniel, take the dinner which God hath sent thee,’ and the angel again set Habakkuk in his own place.”
At one period this subject was represented on sarcophagi, but it can also be found in prints after the Flemish artist, Hemshirk.
Clement, Clara Erskine. Angels in Art
. Boston: L. C. Page and Company, 1898.
Find free images of Michael the Archangel at Christian Image Source.
The Archangel Michael is reverenced as the first and mightiest of all created beings. He was worshiped by the Chaldeans, and the Gnostics taught that he was the leader of the seven angels who created the universe. After the Captivity the Hebrews regarded him as all that is implied by the Prophet Daniel when he says, “Michael, the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people.” It is believed that he will be privileged to exalt the banner of the Cross on the Judgment Day, and to command the trumpet of the archangel to sound; it is on account of these offices that he is called the “Bannerer of Heaven.”
As captain of the heavenly host, it devolved on Michael to conquer Lucifer and his followers, and to expel them from heaven after their refusal to worship the Son of Man ; and terrible was the punishment he inflicted on them. Chained in mid-air, where they must remain until the Judgment Day, they behold all that happens on earth. Man, whom they disdained, has flourished in their sight, and wields a power that they may well envy, while the souls of the redeemed constantly ascend to the heaven which is closed to them. Thus are they constantly tormented by hate, and a desire for revenge, of which they must ever despair.
St. Michael is represented in art as young and severely beautiful. In the earliest pictures his drapery is always white and his wings of many colors, while his symbols, indicating that his conquests are made by spiritual force alone, are a lance terminating in a cross, or a sceptre. Later, it became the custom to represent him in a costume and with such emblems as indicated the nature of the work in which he was engaged; and except for the wings, his picture might often be mistaken for that of a celestially radiant knight, since he is clothed in armor, and bears a sword, shield, and lance. But his seraphic wings and his bearing mark him as a mighty spiritual power, and this impression is increased rather than lessened, when in all humility he is in the act of worship before the Divine Infant, or stands in reverent attitude near the Madonna, as if to guard her and her heaven-sent son.
When conquering Satan the treatment is varied, but the subject is easily recognized. More frequently than otherwise, the archangel stands on the demon, who is half human and half dragon, wearing a suit of mail, and is about to pierce the evil spirit with a lance or bind him in chains.
Such pictures date from the earliest attempts in religious painting, and the same subject was represented in ancient sculpture. Some of these works are so crude as to be absurd, but for their manifest reverence and sincerity. An early sculpture in the porch of the Cathedral of Cortona, probably dating from the seventh century, presents the archangel in long, heavy robes, reaching to his feet; he stands solidly on the back of the dragon, and as if to make the footing more secure, the beast curls his tail in air and lifts his head as high as possible, holding his mouth wide open, into which St. Michael presses his lance without a struggle. The whole effect is that of some calm and commonplace occurrence, and is in striking contrast with the spirit of the conflict which is represented, as well as with the superhuman combat depicted by later artists.
The dragon is personified by a variety of horrible reptilian forms. Some artists even attempted to follow the apocalyptic description. “For their power is in their mouth, and in their tails, for their tails were like unto serpents, and had heads, and with them they do hurt.”
Lucifer is not always alone, but is sometimes surrounded by demons, who crouch with him at the feet of St. Michael, before whom a company of angels kneel in adoration.
During the sixteenth century the pictures of this archangel took on the military aspect and, but for the wings, would have represented St. George, or a Crusader of the Cross, as suitably as the great Warrior Angel.
An exquisite small picture of this type, now in the Academy at Florence, was painted by Fra Angelico. The lance and shield and the lambent flame above the brow are the only emblems; the latter symbolizing spiritual fervor. The rainbow-tinted wings are raised and fully spread, meeting above and behind the head; the armor is of a rich dark red and gold. The pose and the expression of the countenance indicate the reserved power and the godlike tranquility of the celestial warrior, and fitly represent him as the patron of the Church Militant.
The representations of St. Michael conquering Lucifer are so numerous and so interesting technically, that any adequate account of them and of their artistic and theological development would fill a volume, and might be considered rather tiresome. However, there are two examples which are very generally accepted as the most satisfactory of them all.
Archangel Michael Casting Satan out of Heaven by Raphael
The first, painted by Raphael when at his best, is in the Louvre. It was a commission from Lorenzo de Medici, who presented it to Francis I. The subject was doubtless chosen by Raphael as a compliment to the sovereign, who was the Grand Master of the Order of St. Michael, the military patron saint of France.
It was painted on wood, and sent with three other pictures, packed on mules, to Fontainebleau, where Lorenzo was visiting, in May, 1518. The picture was somewhat injured on the journey. In 1773 it was transferred to canvas, and “restored” three years later, the restorations were eventually removed. The picture has no doubt suffered from these chances and changes, but the fact remains that it is still a glorious work by a great master.
The beautiful young angel does not stand upon the fiend beneath him, but, poised in air, he lightly touches with his foot the shoulder of the demon in vulgar human form, fiery in color, having horns and a serpent’s tail. The expression of the angel is serious, calm, majestic, as he gazes down upon the writhing Satan, whose face, as he struggles to raise it, is full of malignant hate. This detail is lost in the black and white reproductions.
Michael grasps the lance with both hands, and so natural is the action, so easy and graceful, that the beholder instinctively waits to see the weapon do its work, while flames rise from the earth as if impatient to engulf the disgusting demon. The head of the angel, with its light, floating hair is against the background of the brilliant wings, in which blue, gold, and purple are gloriously mingled; his armor is gold and silver; a sword hangs by his side, and an azure scarf floats from his shoulders. His legs are bare, and his feet shod with buskins, which leave the toes uncovered. The contrast between the exquisite, angelic flesh tints, rosy in hue, and the brown coloring of the demon, effectively emphasizes the beauty of purity and the loathsomeness of evil.
The Archangel Michael Overpowering Satan by Guido Reni
The St. Michael of Guido Reni so closely resembles that of Raphael in general treatment, that it is more nearly just to compare these works than is usually the case with pictures of the same subject by different masters. The attitude of Guido’s saint is like that of a dancing-master when contrasted with the pose of Raphael’s, and his demon is simply low and base, devoid of malignity or any supreme evil.
But the head and face of Guido’s Michael make his picture wonderful; they adequately express divine purity and beauty, while the studied and fictitious qualities of Guido’s art here at their best serve to enhance the exquisite effect of this angelic warrior, and the picture is justly esteemed as one of the treasures of the Cappucini at Rome.
Clement, Clara Erskine. Angels in Art
. Boston: L. C. Page and Company, 1898.
You can find many free images of Archangel Michael at Christian Image Source.
A very ancient Annunciation, of peculiar and elaborate arrangement, dating from the fifth century, is in mosaic, over the arch in front of the choir in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, in Rome. The classical treatment of the dresses, and of the entire composition, makes this work so different from the usual conception of the subject as to be of observation. There are two scenes: in the first, the archangel is sent on his mission, and is rapidly flying towards the earth, as if in haste to utter his joyous salutation, “Hail! thou art highly favored! Blessed art thou among women!”
The second scene presents Gabriel standing before the Virgin, who is seated on a throne, behind which are two guardian angels. This representation is so utterly unlike what is known as Christian art as to make a lasting, impression, by reason of its classical treatment; all the details have an air of belonging to an earlier period than that known as medieval, and the figures might be those of ancient Greeks.
It is extremely curious and interesting to observe the various methods of representing the Archangel Gabriel in pictures of the Annunciation. At times he might be mistaken for the ambassador of a proud and powerful earthly potentate. He is clothed in gorgeous raiment, with a rich train, sometimes borne by one, and again by three page-like angels, while carries himself with majestic haughtiness
We do not wonder that the difference between the estate of an archangel sent by God, and the humility of the Virgin of Galilee, should have misled some artists, or that with them the angel held the first place, especially as it was only thus that any element of splendor could be introduced into their pictures. Indeed, we have engravings after a picture by Raphael, in which the Virgin is kneeling before the angel, who raises the right hand in benediction.
But the gradual increase in the veneration, accorded to the Virgin, and the title of Queen of Heaven, and Queen of Angels, which were bestowed on her, soon changed the spirit of the representations of the Annunciation; and while the Virgin loses none of her humility and submission, the angel bows, and even kneels, to her, thus emphasizing his acknowledgment of her superior holiness, since an archangel could only kneel before spiritual perfection.
It was well that the patriarchs and prophets should acknowledge the superiority of the angels sent to them, but the glory of the Mother of Christ should be represented as commanding the reverence of even the highest of created beings—only thus could the faith of the Church for which these religious pictures were painted, be fittingly illustrated.
Thus it became customary to omit the scepter in the hand of the angel, and to give him the lily alone, or the lily and the scroll. Indeed, there are notable pictures in which Gabriel has no symbol, but with hands clasped over his breast, and head inclined, he seems to worship the Virgin while declaring his mission to her. There are, however, few Annunciations in which the lily does not appear. It is the special symbol of the purity of Mary, to whom is applied the verse from the Song of Solomon: “I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.” In some pictures the lily is seen in a vase near the Virgin.
Occasionally the symbol of peace is introduced in pictures of the Annunciation by placing a crown of olive on the head of the archangel, or an olive branch in his hand. Here Gabriel is presented as announcing the “Peace on earth and good will towards men,” which Raphael and his attendant angels chanted to the shepherds on the birth of Jesus.
The early German painters were fond of picturing Gabriel in priestly robes, heavily embroidered, and rich in color. This dress supplied the same gorgeous effect as was given by the princely trains. In these pictures Gabriel usually kneels, his ample robes falling on the pavement around him, thus avoiding the proud bearing of the regally vestured messenger.
The simplicity of the scene, when Gabriel is appropriately draped in the filmy white robe, which is the usual conception of an angel’s dress, is far more satisfactory and harmonious with the spirit of the miraculous Annunciation than any splendid vestments can possibly be.
The earliest pictures of the Annunciation, however, in spite of unsuitable costumes, and of certain technical imperfections, are more acceptable to the reverent mind than are those of a later time, in which the angel is scantily draped and is apparently conscious of his physical beauty, while the Virgin is entirely wanting in grace or dignity. Such a rendering of this scene is most offensive; all the more so that these pictures are frequently well executed, and were they not presented as representations of this sacred subject, but given some appropriate title, they would have claims to a certain artistic approbation.
The Annunciation by Alessandro Allori
Other artists, like Allori, in the illustration above, represent an all too conscious Virgin, an angel who apparently poses for a picture, and a mass of utterly inappropriate detail. This Annunciation, which is in the Florentine Academy, affords an excellent example of this objectionable style, and its faults are emphasized when it is compared with the serious dignity of Fra Filippo’s picture and that which follows, by Fra Angelico. By such comparisons the great difference between true sentiment and affectation in Art becomes apparent.
There are some Annunciations in which the Virgin is represented as starting up from fear or surprise, quite as one might fancy that a tragedy queen would do, were her privacy unceremoniously disturbed.
Again the Virgin Mary is fainting from emotion, and thus could not have replied to the angel in the Scriptural words, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”
Not infrequently, in representations of this scene, the Holy Spirit, as a dove, hovers above or near the Virgin, or flies in through a window; again the Almighty is seen in the clouds, surrounded by a celestial light, and sometimes attended by celestial spirits. In rare instances the Eternal Father sends the Infant Jesus down from the sky bearing a cross, and preceded by a dove. These extremely symbolic Annunciations are usually of an early date.
Fra Angelico painted the Annunciation with intense reverence and simplicity. There is an illustration of his fresco on the wall of the corridor in his convent of San Marco, in Florence, which some believe is one of the most beautiful and spiritual Annunciations in existence. It tells the sacred story faithfully; there is nothing introduced that does not essentially belong here. The Virgin gives the impression of being equal to the angel in purity and goodness; he is superior only in knowledge.
Angelico believed that he was divinely directed in his work, which he began with prayer, and for this reason he would never change his original design. His care in the finish of his pictures was phenomenal; his draperies were dignified; his color and composition were harmonious. It has well been said of his works: “Every part contributed to that unity of tenderness, inspiration, and religious feeling which marks his pictures, and which are such as no one man had ever succeeded in accomplishing.”
Angelico knew nothing of human anxieties and struggles, and could not paint them; he could not depict the hatred of the enemies of Christ; martyrdoms and persecutions were feebly represented by him, but to annunciations, coronations of the Virgin, and kindred subjects he imparted a sweetness and a spiritual fervor that has rarely, if ever, been surpassed. We can imagine him rising from his prayers with his conceptions of the Virgin and the archangel as distinct in his mind’s eye as they are to our vision in his pictures, and it is easy to understand that the man who lived in his atmosphere would be void of ambition, and refuse to be made Archbishop of Florence, as he did.
Gabriel is reverenced by the Jews as the chief of the angelic guards and the keeper of the celestial treasury. The Mohammedans regard him as their patron saint; their prophet believed this archangel to be his inspiring and instructing spirit. Thus he is important in the faith and legends of Christians, Jews, and Mohammedans alike. Milton may have had the Jewish tradition in mind when he represented Gabriel as the guardian of paradise:
Betwixt these rocky pillars Gabriel sat,
Chief of the angelic awaiting night.
Clement, Clara Erskine. Angels in Art. Boston: L. C. Page and Company, 1898.
Please visit Christian Image Source for more beautiful images of Archangel Art.
The Archangel Gabriel is mentioned by name but twice in the Old Testament. First in Daniel viii., 16, when he explained the vision which the prophet had seen, and again in Daniel ix., 21, when Gabriel appeared to Daniel to give him skill and understanding.
Likewise in the New Testament he is twice mentioned– in Luke i., 19 and 26, when he announced to Zacharias the birth of John the Baptist, and to the Virgin Mary that she was favored of the Lord, and blessed among women. On each of those occasions he filled the office of a messenger or bearer of important tidings. It is believed to have been Gabriel who fought with the Angel of the Kingdom of Persia for twenty-one days, when Michael came to his relief, and Gabriel again visited Daniel to strengthen him, and explain “that which is noted in the scripture of truth,” and to announce that the king of Greece should overcome the king of Persia. After which Gabriel returned to his battle with the Angel of Persia.
The contest with the angel of Persia is a subject which offers unusual opportunities in its artistic representation; it is, however, much the same in spirit as the struggle between Michael and Lucifer, and the preference was given to the latter by the painters of religious subjects.
St. Gabriel has been many times portrayed as the messenger announcing the birth of John the Baptist and that of Jesus Christ. In the apocryphal legends he also foretells the birth of Samson, and that of the Virgin Mary. From these frequently repeated messages which foretold important births, Gabriel naturally came to be regarded as the angel who presides over childbirth.
The great number of representations of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary make it difficult to select those of which to speak. The earliest pictures of this event portray it with great simplicity, purity, and grace. A spiritual mystery is being depicted, and is handled with sincere reverence and the utmost delicacy.
The scene is usually the portico of an ecclesiastical edifice. When seated, the Virgin is on a species of throne, but she is more frequently represented as standing. The archangel is at some distance from her, not infrequently quite outside the porch. He is majestic and beautiful; is clothed in white, wearing the tunic and pallium or archbishop’s mantle. His wings are large, and brilliant with many colors, and his abundant hair is bound with a jeweled tiara. He bears either the sceptre of power or a lily in one hand, while the other is extended in benediction. Sometimes he holds a scroll inscribed with the words, “Ave Maria, gratia plena.” Hail! Mary, full of grace, the words Dante represents Gabriel as constantly repeating in paradise.
The angel is the chief figure in this scene in the earlier pictures; he is joyfully triumphant, announcing the coming of the Saviour, while the Virgin is all humility and submission; in some cases her head is covered, an extreme expression of lowliness, and she is always self-effacing in attitude and expression.
A Divided Annunciation by Fra Filippo Lippi
An early custom in churches was to place the picture of the Virgin on one side of the altar, and that of the angel the other side; or, if both figures were in the same frame, a division was made by an architectural pillar, or a conventional ornament between them. In many cases the Virgin and the Archangel were placed separately above, or on each side of some scene from the life of Jesus, usually an altar piece. The picture by Fra Filippo Lippi, shown above, is a very fine example of the so-called “divided Annunciations.” It is in the Florentine Academy. This picture is very beautiful, and fittingly expresses the humility and surprise of the Virgin and the reverence of the heavenly messenger. It is also a good example of Fra Filippo’s style; his draperies were graceful, abundant, and usually much ornamented with signs in gold, of which we have here, enough for elegance, while it is not overdone as in other works of this artist.
Clement, Clara Erskine. Angels in Art
. Boston: L.C. Page and Company, 1898.
Be sure to visit Christian Image Source for more free illustrations of Archangel Gabriel.