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Archangels - Saint Michael

( Originally Published 1898 )



THE archangels alone have names, and being known to us by them, as well as in connection with certain important events in heaven and on earth, we involuntarily think of them with a more intimate and, at the same time, a more reverent and sympathetic feeling than we can possibly have for the numberless nameless angels of the heavenly choir.

In works of Art, these last are always beautiful, always smiling, and ever ready to appear in greater or lesser numbers whenever any notable religious event is taking place, thus apparently justifying those who believe that we are always surrounded by these celestial beings. They are a most decorative audience of witnesses, and when they are playing upon their musical instruments, or with open lips and upturned, rapturous eyes are singing praises to God, they contribute an enchanting element to the representation.

But the story of the archangels and their wonderful deeds, as told in Scripture and in the sacred legends, impresses us with a vivid sense of their marvellous power and wisdom, as well as of their tender sympathy for the human beings 'whom they protected and served in their office of guardians and defenders. The official duties that have been as-signed them by the theologians have the effect of giving them a place, so to speak, in which we may think of them ; and this serves to make them more positively existent to our minds than other angels are. In comparison with such a personality as we must involuntarily give to St. Michael, the hovering, musical angels are so intangible, such veritable airy visions, that they elude all practical thought of them, and appear to be evolved upon occasion from the air into which they vanish.

Michael (like unto God) is the captain-general and leader of the heavenly host; the protector of the Hebrew nation, and the conqueror of the hosts of hell ; the lord and guardian of souls, and the patron saint and prince of the Church militant. His attributes are the sceptre, the sword, and the scales.

Gabriel (God is my strength) is the guardian of the celestial treasury; a bearer of important messages ; the angel of the Annunciation, and the preceptor of the Patriarch Joseph. His symbol is the lily.

Raphael (the medicine of God) is the chief of guardian angels, and was the conductor of the young Tobias. He bears the staff and gourd of a pilgrim.

Uriel (the light of God) is regent of the sun, and was the teacher of Esdras. His symbols are a roll and book.

Chamuel (one who sees God) is believed by some to be the angel who wrestled with Jacob, and who appeared to Christ during the agony in the garden. Others believe the latter to have been Gabriel. Chamuel bears a cup and staff.

Jophiel (the beauty of God) is the guardian of the Tree of Knowledge, who drove Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden ; the protector of seekers for truth ; the preceptor of the sons of Noah ; the enemy of those who pursue vain knowledge. His attribute is a flaming sword.

Zadkiel (the righteousness of God) is sometimes said to have stayed the hand of Abraham from the sacrifice of Isaac, while others believe this to have been the work of Michael. The sacrificial knife is the symbol of Zadkiel.

When the archangels are represented merely as such, without reference to their distinctive offices, they are in complete armor, holding swords with the points upwards, and sometimes bearing trumpets also. They are of a twofold nature, since they are powers, as are the princedoms, and fulfil the duties of messengers and ministers, as do the angels.

Although each of the seven archangels has been many times represented in works of Art, I know of no example in which they are seen together, and can be distinguished by name. There are occasional instances of the representation of seven angels, blowing trumpets, which are intended to illustrate the text in Revelation, " And I saw the seven angels which stand before God, and to them were given seven trumpets."

In pictures of the crucifixion, and of the Virgin with the body of her dead son, — known as the Pietà, — the instruments of the Passion are frequently borne by seven angels, and the same number appear in pictures of the last judgment. But as neither the Eastern or Western Church acknowledged the seven archangels, it is probable that these pictures represent the angels of Revelation.

A most interesting example of artistic symbolism. is seen in a picture painted in 1352 by Taddeo Gaddi, and now in the Church of Santa Maria Novella, in Florence. Here seven angels attend on St. Thomas Aquinas, and bear the symbols of the distinguished virtues of this reverend and learned saint. The symbols are a church— Religion ; a crown and sceptre—Power; a book—Knowledge; a cross and shield—Faith; an olive branch — Peace ; flames of fire — Piety and Charity ; and a lily — Purity.

The Hebrews believed that Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel sustain the throne of God. The first three are reverenced as saints in the Catholic Church; and their divine achievements and celestial beauty have been a fruitful inspiration to painters and sculptors, resulting in the creation of many immortal works of art.

The Archangel Michael is reverenced as the first and mightiest of all created beings. He was worshipped 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 con-quests 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, to which I have referred, 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 tranquillity 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 tire-some. I shall speak especially of two examples which are very generally accepted as the most satisfactory of them all.

The first, painted by Raphael when at his best, is in the Louvre. It was a commission from Lorenzo dei 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, but at the beginning of this century the restorations were removed. We must believe that the picture has 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 back-ground 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 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.

Outside of Italian art, the St. Michael of Martin Schoen is well worth notice. The figure is fully draped in a long, flowing robe and mantle ; the pose is most graceful, and the bearing of the angel dignified and unruffled. The demon is made up of fins, a savage mouth, and numerous claws with which to seize its victims ; an entirely emblematic and most repulsive figure.

There are occasional pictures of the " Fall of the Angels," in which St. Michael contends against the entire company of rebellious spirits. These are illustrative of the text, " When Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon fought and his angels, and the great dragon was cast out."

The painting of such a picture at Arezzo, about 1400, caused the death of Spinello d'Arezzo, whose mind so dwelt upon the demons he had painted that he went mad, and fancied that Lucifer appeared to him, and cursed him for having represented the fiend and his angels in so revolting a manner. The horror of the artist induced a fever of which he died.

The smaller of the two pictures of this subject by Rubens, in Munich, is esteemed a miracle of art. It displays the inventive power of the great Flemish master in a wonderful tour de force, for the rebel angels are not fallen, but falling, and tumbling headlong out of heaven, down, down, — in such confusion and affright as only Rubens could portray.

In some cases Raphael and Gabriel are represented as witnesses of the combat between Michael and Lucifer. To my taste, these figures, with their abundant white draperies, detract from the simplicity and dignity of this impressive scene. Not only these archangels, but apostles and saints are sometimes introduced, in spite of the evident anachronism, as observers of this great spiritual struggle, while hosts of angels are above and around the picture.

In short, the representations of this subject, in one form and another, are almost numberless, and can scarcely be too many, when they are regarded as embodying the great truth of the spiritual triumph over evil.

Mrs. Jameson says : " This is the secret of its perpetual repetition, and this the secret of the untired complacency with which we regard it ... and if to this primal moral significance be added all the charm of poetry, grace, animated movement, which human genius has lavished on this ever-blessed, ever-welcome symbol, then, as we look up at it, we are ` not only touched, but wakened and inspired,' and the whole delighted imagination glows with faith and hope, and grateful triumphant sympathy, — so, at least, I have felt, and I must believe that others have felt it, too."

The representations of St. Michael as the Lord of Souls are less numerous than those of the subjects just mentioned, 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.

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 arch. angel, 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 sin-less form.

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," which we give, 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 in-stance 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, and, although I have nowhere found this explanation, it has seemed to me that the souls being thus weighed at the last hour should symbolize 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., II). He brought the plagues on Egypt and led the Israelites on their journey. The Jews and early Christians believed that God spake 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, and I have seen no other representation of it, although I believe that a few others exist.

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 apochryphal 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 I have only seen it in prints after the Flemish artist, Hemshirk.

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 here was small, but Richard of Normandy and William the Conquerer 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.

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 lo ! an angel clothed in light appeared before her, saluting her, and saying, Hail, 0 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 re-united 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.



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