Images of Medieval Art and Architecture

Text from Sacred and Legendary Art
by Anna Jameson
Third Editon: London, 1911

Saint Michael

It is difficult to clothe in adequate language the divine attributes with which painting and poetry have invested this illustrious archangel. Jews and Christians are agreed in giving him the preeminence over all created spirits. All the might, the majesty, the radiance, of Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues, Powers, are centered in him. In him God put forth his strength when He exalted him chief over the celestial host, when angels warred with angels in heaven; and in him God showed forth his glory when He made him conqueror over the power of sin, and 'over the great dragon that deceived the world.'

Origin of worship of Michael

To the origin of the worship paid to this Great Archangel I dare not do more than allude, lest I stray wide from my subject, and lose myself, and my readers too, in labyrinths of Orientalism. But, in considering the artistic representations, it is interesting to call to mind that the glorification of St. Michael may be traced back to that primitive Eastern dogma, the perpetual antagonism between the Spirit of Good and the Spirit of Evil, mixed up with the Chaldaic belief in angels and their influence over the destinies of man. It was subsequent to the Captivity that the active Spirit of, Good, under the name of Michael, came to be regarded as the especial protector of the Hebrew nation; the veneration paid to him by the Jews was adopted, or rather retained, by the Oriental Christians, and, though suppressed for a time, was revived and spread over the West, where we find it popular and almost universal from the eighth century.

St. Micheal motifs

The legends which have grown out of a few mystical texts of Scripture, amplified by the fanciful disquisition's of the theological writers, place St. Michael before us in three great characters :

1. As captain of the heavenly hosts, and conqueror of the powers of hell. 2. As lord of souls, conductor and guardian of the spirits of the dead. 3. As patron saint and prince of the Church Militant.

Michael as captain of Heavenly Host

When Lucifer, possessed by the spirit of pride and ingratitude refused to fall down and worship the Son of man, Michael was deputed to punish his insolence, and to cast him out from heaven. Then Michael chained the revolted angels in middle air, where they are to remain till the day of judgment, being in the meantime perpetually tortured by hate, envy, and despair; for they behold man, whom they had disdained, exalted as their superior; above them they see the heaven they have forfeited; and beneath them the redeemed souls continually rising from earth, and ascending to the presence of God, whence they are shut out for ever.

'Now,' says the old Legend, (Il Perfetto Legendario, 1659)' if it be asked wherefore the books of Moses, in revealing the disobedience and the fall of man, are silent as to the revolt and the fall of the angels, thhe reason is plain; and in this God acted according to his wisdom. For, let us suppose that a certain powerful lord had two vassals, both. guilty of the crime of treason, and one of these is a nobleman of pure and lofty lineage, and the other a base-born churl :what doth this lord? He hangs up the churl in the market-place as a warning and example to others;but, for the nobleman, fearing the scandal that may arise among the people, and perhaps also some insult to the officers of the law, the judge causes him to be tried secretly, and shuts him up in a dungeon ; and when judgment is pronounced against him, he sends to his prison, and puts him privily to death; and when one asketh after him, the answer is only " He is dead : "-and nothing more. Thus did God in respect to the rebel angels of old; and their fate was not revealed until the redemption of man was accomplished.'

This passage from the old Italian legend is so curiously characteristic of the feudal spirit of Christianity in the middle ages, that I have ventured to insert it verbatim. If religion did, in some degree, modify the institutions of chivalry, in a much greater degree did the ruling prejudices of a barbarian age modify the popular ideas of religion. Here, notwithstanding the primary doctrine of Christ-the equality of all men before God, we have the distinction between noble and churl carried into the very councils of Heaven.

Michael as guardian of the dead on Judgement Day

But, to return to St. Michael : on whom, as the leader of his triumphant hosts, God bestowed many and great privileges;. To him it was given

to bid sound th' archangel trumpet,

and exalt the banner of the Cross in the day of judgment; and to him likewise was assigned the reception of the immortal spirits when released by death. It was his task to weigh them in a balance (Dan. v. 27 ; Ps. Ixii. 9) : those whose good works exceeded their demerits he presented before the throne of God; but those who were found wanting he gave up to be tortured in purgatory, until their souls, from being I as crimson, should become as white as snow.' Therefore, in the hour of death, he is to be invoked by the faithful, saying ' O Michael, Militiae caelestis signifer, in adjutorium nostrum veni, princeps et propugnator!

Michael as patron of the Church Militant

Lastly, when it pleased the Almighty to select from among the nations of the earth one people to become peculiarly his own, He appointed St. Michael to be president and leader over that chosen people.' 'At that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people' (Dan. x. 13, xii. 1) : and when the power of the Synagogue was supposed to cease, and to be replaced by the power of the Church, so that the Christians became the people of God, then Michael, who had been the great prince of the Hebrew people, became the prince and leader of the Church militant in Christendom, and the guardian of redeemed souls, against his old ,adversary the Prince of Hell. (Rev. xii. 6, 7.)

Worship of Michael in the East and West

The worship paid to St. Michael, and which originated in the far East is supposed to have been adopted by the Oriental Christians in consequence of a famous apparition of the Archangel at Colossi, in Phrygia, which caused him to be held in especial honor by the people of that city, and perhaps occasioned the particular warning of St. Paul ,addressed to the Colossians. But although the worship of angels was considered among the heresies of the early Church, we find Constantine no sooner master of the empire, and a baptized Christian. than lie dedicates a church to the Archangel Michael (by his Greek name Michaelion), and this church, one of the most magnificent in Contstantinople, became renowned for its miracles, and the parent and model of hundreds more throughout the East. In the West, the honors paid to St. Michael are of later date : that a church dedicated to him must have existed in Rome long before the Year 500 seems clear, because at that time it is mentioned as having fallen into ruin. But the West had its angelic apparitions as well as the East, and St. Michael owes his wide-spread popularity in the middle ages to three famous visions ' which are thus recorded.

Visions of Saint Michael

In the fifth century, in the city of Siponte, in Apulia (now Manfredonia), dwelt a man named Galgano or Garganus, very rich in cattle, sheep, and beasts ; and as they pastured on the sides of the mountain, it happened that a bull strayed and came not home; then the rich man took a multitude of servants and sought the bull, and found him at the entrance of a cave on the very summit of the mountain and, being wroth with the bull, the master ordered him to be slain but when the arrow was sent from the bow it returned to the bosom of him who sent it, and he fell dead on the ground: then the master and his servants were troubled, and they sent to inquire of the bishop what should be done. The bishop, having fasted and prayed three days, beheld in a vision the glorious Archangel Michael, who descended on the mountain, and told him that the servant had been slain because he had violated a spot peculiarly sacred to him, and be commanded that a church should be erected and sanctified there to his honor. And when they entered the cavern they found there three altars already erected, one of them covered with a rich embroidered altarcloth of crimson and gold, and a stream of limpid water springing from the rock which healed all diseases. So the church was built, and the fame of the vision of Monte Galgano, though for some time confined to the south of Italy, spread throughout Europe, and many pilgrimages were made to the spot on which the angelic footsteps had alighted.

The second vision is much more imposing. When Rome was nearly depopulated by a pestilence in the sixth century, St. Gregory, afterwards pope, advised that a procession should be made through the streets of the city, singing the service since called the Great Litanies. He placed himself at the head of the faithful, and during three days they perambulated the city; and on the third day, when they had arrived opposite to the mole of Hadrian, Gregory beheld the Archangel Michael alight on the summit of that monument, and sheathe his sword, bedropped with blood. Then Gregory knew that the plague was stayed, and a church was there dedicated to the honor of the Archangel : and the Tomb of Hadrian has since been called the Castle of Sant' Angelo to this day.

This, of all the recorded apparitions of St. Michael, is the only one which can be called poetical ; it is evidently borrowed from the vision ,of the destroying- angel in Scripture. As early as the ninth century, a church or chapel dedicated to St. Michael was erected on the summit of the huge monument, which at that time must have preserved much of its antique magnificence. The church was entitled Eccelesia Sancti Angeli usque ad Caelo. The bronze statue, which in memory of this miracle now surmounts the Castle of St. Angelo, was placed there in recent times by Benedict XIV., and is the work of a Flemish sculptor, Verschaffelt.....

A third apparition was that accorded to Aubert. bishop of Avranches (AD 706). This holy man seems to have been desirous to attract to his own diocese a portion of that sanctity (and perhaps other advantages) which Monte Galgano derived from the worship of St. Michael. In the Gulf of Avranches, in Normandy, stands a lofty isolated rock inaccessible from the land at high water, and for ages past celebrated as one of the strongest fortresses and state prisons in France. In the reign of Childebert II., St. Aubert, bishop of Avranches, had a vision, in which the Archangel Michael commanded him to repair to this rock, then the terror of mariners, and erect a church to his honor on the highest point, where a bull would be found concealed, and it was to cover as much space as the bull had trampled with his hoofs; he also discovered to the bishop a well-spring- of pure water, which had before been unknown. As the bishop treated this command a s a dream, the Archangel appeared to him a second and a third time; and at length, to impress it on his waking- memory, he touched his head with his thumb, and made a mark or hole in his skull, which he carried to the grave. This time the bishop obeyed, and a small church was built on the spot indicated; afterwards replaced by the magnificent Abbey Church, which was begun by Richard duke of Normandy, in 966, and finished by William the Conqueror. The poverty of invention shown in this legend, which is little more than a repetition of that of Monte Galgano, is very disappointing to the fancy, considering, the celebrity of Mont-Saint-Michel as a place of pilgrimage, and as one of the most picturesque objects in European scenery, with its massive towers, which have braved the tempests of a thousand years, rising from the summit of the peak, and the sea weltering round its base. It, failed not, however, in the effect anticipated. The worship of St. Michael became popular in France from the ninth century; the Archangel was selected as patron saint of France, and of the military order instituted in his honor by Louis XI in 1469. The worship paid to St. Michael as patron saint of Normandy naturally extended itself to England after the Norman conquest, and churches dedicated to this archangel abound in all the towns and cities along the southern and eastern shores of our island; we also have a Mount St. Michael on the coast of Cornwall, in situation and in name resembling- that on the coast of France. At this day there are few cities in Christendom which do not contain a church or churches dedicated to St. Michael, some of them of great antiquity.

I must not omit that St. Michael is considered as the angel of good counsel :-that 'Le vrai office de Monseigneur Saint Michael est de faire grandes revelations aux honimes en bas, en leur donnant moult saintes conseils', and in particular, 'sur le bon nourissement que le pere et la mere donnent a leurs enfans.' It is to be regretted that 'Monseigneur Saint Michel ' should be found rather remiss in this part of his angelic functions.

Saint Michael in Art

We shall now see how far these various traditions and popular notions concerning St. Michael have been carried out in Art.

In all representations of St. Michael, the leading idea, well or ill expressed, is the same. He is young and beautiful, but ' severe in youthful beauty' as one who carries on a perpetual contest with the powers of evil. In the earlier works of art he is robed in white, with ample many-colored wings , and bears merely the scepter or the lance surmounted by a cross, as one who conquered by spiritual might alone. But in the later representations, those colored by the spirit of chivalry, he is the angelic Paladin, armed in a dazzling coat of mail, with sword, and spear, and shield. He has a lofty open brow, long fair hair floating on his shoulders, sometimes bound by a jeweled tiara; sometimes, but not often, shaded by a helmet. From his shoulders spring two resplendent wings. Thus we see him standing by the throne of the Madonna, or worshipping at the feet of the Divine Infant ; an exquisite, allegory of spiritual and intellectual power protecting purity and adoring innocence.


But the single devotional figures of St. Michael usually represent him as combining the two great characters of captain of the heavenly host, and conqueror of the powers of hell. He stands armed, setting his foot on Lucifer, either in the half-human or the dragon form, and is about to transfix him with his lance, or to chain him down in the infernal abyss. Such, however varied in attitude, expression and accessories, is the most frequent and popular representation of St. Michael, when placed before us, as the universally received emblem of the final victory of good over evil.


In the earliest representations of this subject, we see the simplest form of the allegory, literally rendering the words of Scripture, 'The dragon shalt thou trample under foot ' (Ps. xci. 13). Here there is 110 risk of a divided interest or a misdirected sympathy. The demon, groveling under the feet of the victorious spirit, is not the star-bright apostate who drew after him the third part of heaven ; it is the bestial malignant reptile:-not the emblem of resistance, but the emblem of sin - not of the sin that aspires, which, in fact, is a contradiction in terms;-no sin aspires;-but of the -,in which degrades and brutifies, as all sin does. In the later representations, where the demon takes the half-human shape, however hideous and deformed, the allegory may so be brought nearer to us, and rendered more terrible even by a horrid sympathy with that human face, grinning, in despite and agony; but much of the beauty of the scriptural metaphor is lost.,


Saint Michael in the Bible and in the legends of Mary

The historical subjects in which St. Michael is introduced exhibit him as prince of the Hebrew nation, and belong- properly to the Old Testament. ''After the confusion of tongues, and the scattering of the people, which occurred on the building of the Tower of Babel, every separate nation had an angel to direct it. To Michael was given in charge the people of the Lord. The Hebrews being carried away captive into the land of Assyria, Daniel prayed that they might be permitted to return when the seventy years of captivity were over; but the Angel of Persia opposed himself on this occasion to the angels Michael and Gabriel. He wished to retain the Jews in captivity, because he was glad to have, within the bounds of his jurisdiction, a people who served the true God, and because he hoped that in time the captive Jews would convert to the truth the Assyrians and Persians committed to his care.' This curious passage from one of the early Christian fathers representing the good angels as opposed to each other, and one of them as disputing the commands of God, is an instance of the confused ideas on the subject of angels which prevailed in the ancient Church, and which prevail, I imagine, in the minds of many even at this day

In the story of Hagar in the wilderness, it is Michael who descends to her aid. In the sacrifice of Isaac, it is Michael who stays the arm of Abraham. It is Michael who brings the plagues on Egypt, and he it is who leads the Israelites through the wilderness. It was the belief of the Jews, and of some of the early Christian fathers, that through his angel (not in person) God spoke to Moses from the burning bush, and delivered to him the law on Mount Sinai; and that the angel so delegated was Michael.

It is Michael who combats with Lucifer for the body of Moses. (Jude ver. 9.) According to one interpretation of this curious passage of Scripture, the demon wished to enter and to possess the form of Moses, in order to deceive the Jews by impersonating their leader - but others say, that Michael contended for the body that he might bury it in an unknown place, lest the Jews should fall into the sin of paying divine honors to their legislator. This is a fine picturesque subject; the rocky desert, the body of Moses dead on the earth, the contest of the good and evil angel confronting each other, these are grand materials ! It must have been rarely treated, for I remember but one instance-the fresco by L. Signorelli, in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.

It is Michael who intercepts Balaam when on his way to curse the people of Israel, and puts blessings into his mouth instead of curses ,a subject often treated, but as a fact rather than a vision.

It is Michael who stands before Joshua in the plain by Jericho:-- 'And Joshua said unto him, Art thou for us, or for our adversaries ? And he said, Nay; but as captain of the host of the Lord am I now come. And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and did worship, and said unto him, What saith my Lord unto his servant? And the captain of the Lord's host said unto Joshua, Loose thy shoe from off thy foot; for the place whereon thou standest is holy.' (Joshua v. 13-15.) This subject is very uncommon...

. It is Michael who appears to Gideon.(Judges vi 11) It is Michael who chastises David. (2 Sam xxiv 16) It is Michael who exterminates the army of Sennacherib ; a subject magnificently painted by Rubens. (Some suppose that on this occasion God made use of the ministry of an evil angel.')

It is Michael who descends to deliver the Three Children from the burning fiery furnace. The Three Children in the furnace is a subject which appears very early in the catacombs and on the sarcophagi as a symbol of the Redemption;-so early, that it is described by Tertullian; but in almost all the examples given there are three figures only : where there is a fourth it is, of course the protecting angel, but he is without wings.

Michael seizes the prophet Habakkuk by the hair of the head, and carries him to Babylon, to the den of lions, that be may feed Daniel.' This apocryphal subject occurs on several sarcophagi....

The Archangel Michael is not named in the Gospels; but in the legends of the Madonna, as we shall see hereafter, he plays a very important part, being deputed by Christ to announce to His mother her approaching end, and to receive her soul. For the present I will only remark, that when, in accordance with this very ancient legend, an angel is represented kneeling before the Madonna, and holding in his band a palm surmounted by stars, or a lighted taper, this angel is not Gabriel, announcing the Conception of Christ, as is usually supposed, but Michael, as the angel of death.

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