Archangels: Part 2

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Archangels

Apse Mosaic, San Vitale, Ravenna (Flickr) / CC BY-NC 3.0

The earliest instance of the Archangels introduced by name into a work of art is in the old church of San Michele at Ravenna (A. D. 545). The mosaic in the apse exhibits Christ in the centre, bearing in one hand the cross as a trophy or sceptre, and in the other an open book on which are the words, “Qui cidef me videt et Patrem meum” [John xiv. 9]. On each side stand Michael and Gabriel, with vast wings and long scepters; their names are inscribed above, but without the Sanctus and without the Glory. It appears, therefore, that at this time, the middle of the sixth century, the title of Saint, though in use, had not been given to the Archangels.

Archangels - 2Vault of the San Zeno Chapel, Basilica di Santa Prassede, Rome, Italy by Sixtus

When, in the ancient churches, the figure of Christ or of the Lamb appears in a circle of glory in the centre of the roof and around, or at the four corners, four angels who sustain the circle with outstretched arms, or stand as watchers, with sceptres or lances in their hands, these are presumed to be the four Archangels “who sustain the throne of God.” Examples may be seen in San Vitale at Ravenna; in the chapel of San Zeno, in Santa Prassede at Rome; and on the roof of the choir of San Francesco d’Assisi.

Archangels -3Franciscan Allegories – Allegory of Giotto di Bondone
Allegory of Poverty
c. 1330, Fresco, Lower Church, San Francesco, Assisi

So the four Archangels, stately colossal figures, winged and armed and sceptred, stand over the arch of the choir in the Cathedral of Monreale, at Palermo. (Greek mosaic, A. D. 1174.)

So the four angels stand at the four corners of the earth (Rev. vii. 1) and hold the winds, heads with puffed cheeks and dishevelled hair. (MS. of the Book of Revelation, fourteenth century, Trinity College, Dublin.)

Uriel is seldom represented by name, or alone, in any sacred edifice. In the picture of Uriel painted by Allston, he is the “Regent of the Sun,” as described by Milton, not a sacred or scriptural personage.  On a shrine of carved ivory (Hotel de Cluny [Paris]) can be seen the four Archangels as keeping guard, two at each end. The three first are named, as usual, St. Michael, St. Gabriel, St. Raphael. The fourth is styled St. Cherubin–the same name inscribed over the head of the angel who expels Adam and Eve from Paradise. There is no authority for such an appellation applied individually, but in a famous legend of the Middle Ages, “La Penitence d’Adam,” the angel who guards the gates of Paradise is designated as “Lorsque l’Ange Chernbin vit arriver Seth aux portes de Paradis,” etc. The four Archangels, however, seldom occur together, except in architectural decoration.

The Three Archangels from an Ancient Greek picture.

On the other hand, devotional pictures of the three Archangels named in the canonical Scriptures are of frequent occurrence. They are often grouped together as patron saints or protecting spirits, or they stand round the throne of Christ, or below the glorified Virgin and Child, in an attitude of adoration. According to the Greek formula, the three in combination represent the triple power–military, civil, and religious– of the celestial hierarchy. St. Michael being dressed as a warrior, Gabriel as a prince, and Raphael as a priest. In the Greek picture shown above, the three Archangels sustain in a kind of throne the figure of the youthful Christ, here winged, as being Himself the supreme Angel and with both hands blessing the universe. The Archangel Raphael has here the place of dignity as representing the Priesthood, but in western art Michael takes precedence of the two others, and is usually placed in the center as Prince or Chief.

Source: Jameson, Anna. Sacred and Legendary Art – Volume 1. London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longman’s & Roberts, 1987.

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