Saint Michael the Archangel: The Iconography
SEPTEMBER 29
The image of St. Michael that you are most likely to see in museums and churches is like the pictures at right: Suited up as a warrior, the angel thrusts a spear into Satan, who is portrayed as a dragon or demon. At first glance people sometimes mistake him for the dragon-slaying St. George, especially when he carries a shield with a cross, but of course Michael always has wings and George never does.

THE FALL OF SATAN

This iconographic type relates to the opening episode in salvation history: The angel Lucifer rebels against God and is driven into Hell with his companions. Lucifer becomes Satan, and his formerly angelic companions are now the demons that will seek to avenge their defeat by assailing mankind.

Scripture provides no direct account of the Fall of Satan, but two texts were interpreted as referencing it. The first is in Isaiah's oracle against the King of Babylon (14:12-14). In the Vulgate the king is called Lucifer:
How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, who didst rise in the morning? How art thou fallen to the earth, that didst wound the nations? And thou saidst in thy heart: I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God, I will sit in the mountain of the covenant, in the sides of the north. I will ascend above the height of the clouds, I will be like the most High. But yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, into the depth of the pit.
Christians took this text allegorically to refer to the fall of Lucifer/Satan. Christ himself had said, "I saw Satan like lightning falling from Heaven" (Luke 10:18), and later he related this primal victory to the one he would gain on the Cross: "Now is the judgment of the world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out" (John 12:32).

That Satan's fall from Heaven was effected by a host of angels led by Michael was taken to be the meaning of Revelation 12:7-9):
And there was a great battle in heaven, Michael and his angels fought with the dragon, and the dragon fought and his angels: And they prevailed not, neither was their place found any more in heaven. And that great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, who seduceth the whole world; and he was cast unto the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
Countless texts have retold the story of this primal victory over Satan. Gregory the Great refers to it in his 6th-century Homilies on the Gospels (XXXIV, ¶9), the Golden Legend includes it in the section on Michael, and it provides the first scene in the English mystery plays at Wakefield, Chester, and N-town.1 Perhaps the most famous account occupies the whole of Book VI in Milton's Paradise Lost.

The scripts of the plays do not mention Michael by name, and in Milton he fails to dislodge Lucifer so the Son comes in for the final victory. But in visual art it is always Michael who prevails, as in this spectacular panel from a Spanish altarpiece.

EARLIER PORTRAITS

In early images Michael and Gabriel hold sceptres and flank the throne of the Virgin dressed as Byzantine courtiers (see this example and Weitzmann, Icon, pages 45, 47, and 51).

ST. MICHAEL AND THE LAST JUDGMENT

St. Michael is also commonly included in Last Judgment scenes, as in the picture at the top of this page. Daniel 12:1 says that at the end of the world Michael will "rise up, the great prince, who standeth for the children of thy people…and at that time shall thy people be saved."2 But in images of the Last Judgment his role is not so much the defense of the faithful as the weighing of souls, the so-called psychostasy for which the artists provide a balance-scale, usually with a soul sitting on one of the pans and a devil pulling down on that pan (See this additional example.) Molanus (347) interprets the scale as a reminder that God will judge us in aequitatem, and he cites a number of verses and commentaries where the scale metaphor expresses God's equitable judgment.

As for the devil tugging on the pan, Molanus says he is the "lying accuser" who will seek to have the most severe penalties exacted for any wrongs we may have committed.

In Dante's Inferno (IX, 76-105) Michael is a stern figure denouncing those newly arrived in Hell. But in the liturgy he is "the standard-bearer" who will guide the souls of the faithful departed "into the holy light, which thou didst promise of old to Abraham and his seed."3

Some portraits of St. Michael, such as the second one at right, will include both the scales and the vanquished Satan, calling to the viewer's mind both the first and last episodes in salvation history. Images of this type will picture Satan in human form, not as a dragon. Like the picture at the top of this page, this example goes further by making the vanquished Satan the same demon who pulls down on the pan.

Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-10-04, 2017-01-18,30.

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NOTES

1 Wakefield's The Creation and Fall of the Angels: Bevington, 258-66. Chester's The Fall of Lucifer: Deimling I, 9-20. The N-Town Creation of Heaven and Fall of Lucifer is in Sugano.

2 Butler (III, 677-79) traces the history of Michael's reputation as, first, a protector of Israel, and subsequently in Christian thought, as a "psychopomp" or guide for souls in the Last Judgment.

3 From the offertory of the Tridentine Mass for the Dead: "O Lord Jesus Christ, King of glory, deliver the souls of all the faithful departed from the pains of Hell and from the deep pit: deliver them from the mouth of the lion, that Hell may not swallow them up, and they may not fall into darkness; but may the holy standard-bearer Michael introduce them to the holy light: Which Thou didst promise of old to Abraham and to his posterity." Molanus (347) follows the same phrasing of that prayer in his comments on Michael's scale: Debeamus deposuisse omne…peccatum, ut signifer sanctus Michael repraesentet nos in lucem sanctam, quae olim Abrahae, & semini eius promissa est, "We should let go of…every sin, so that the holy standard-bearer Michael may introduce us into the holy light that was promised of old to Abraham and his seed."









































SHOWN ABOVE

The Weighing of Souls: Hispano-Flemish painter, early 16th century (see description page)

OTHER IMAGES

Statue in the cathedral in Barcelona – See description page

Detail from Signorella's Assumption of the Virgin – See description page

A santo in Cuilapan, Mexico – See description page

MORE IMAGES

  • A tympanum in Zadar, Croatia: Michael vanquishing Satan.
  • A statue in Switzerland with both the fiery sword and the scales.
  • A 15th-century fresco in Croatia combining Michael's roles in the victory over Satan and in the psychostasy.
  • 19th century: A santo at Mission San Juan Capistrano, California.
  • 2009: A poster with the traditional iconography used in a religious festival in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

NAMES

  • The name "Michael" means "Who is like God?"
  • Molanus (348-49) says he is called "archangel" because of his leadership in the two great battles and is not actually a member of the order of Archangels.

DATES

  • The Roman Martyrology honors St. Michael on September 29, the day when the Church of St. Michael was dedicated on Mount Gargano, in southern Italy. The church became a pilgrimage destination during the Middle Ages.

ALSO SEE

HAGIOGRAPHY