September 29: On Mount Gargano, the memorial of the venerable and blessed Michael the Archangel, the day when a church was consecrated there in his name. It was modest in structure but outstanding in celestial power.1
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 uses a spear or sword to vanquish Satan, who is portrayed as a dragon or demon at his feet. 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.
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.2 Perhaps the best known 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 and the Son must come in for the final victory. But in visual art it is always Michael who prevails, as in this spectacular panel from a Spanish altarpiece.
ST. MICHAEL AND THE LAST JUDGMENTSt. 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."3 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 a related image type the lying accuser stands on the left claiming his prey in the scales while Christ or Mary on the right intercedes for the just (example).
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."4 In a painting of Paradise at California's Mission San Miguel, Michael stands in the center, pictured larger even than the Trinity, with seated saints to his left and right and faithful souls approaching from below and looking to him (Neuerburg, 3).
Many portraits of St. Michael, such as the second one at right, will include both the scales and the vanquished Satan, suggesting that Michael's is a victory for justice. 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.
THE SHRINE ON MOUNT GARGANOA shrine to St. Michael on Mount Gargano, in southern Italy, has been a pilgrimage site since at least the 6th century. In the late 7th or early 8th century a book appeared that placed the history of the shrine in earlier times when the local area was Christian but others were not. In the book, St. Michael builds a church on the mountain and later fends off an invasion by pagans from Naples (Everett, 73-78). For more details and a fresco illustrating the story, follow this link.
PORTRAITSIn 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).
Later images in the West are mostly narrative, but one pax In medieval times, a metal tablet with an image of Christ or a saint that was kissed by the celebrant and others during the Mass in the treasury of Zadar Cathedral has SS. Agatha and Michael flanking the Madonna and Child (Petricioli, 107). In western images Michael is identified by military dress and either or both of two attributes: a spear or sword referencing the fall of Satan, and scales for his role in the Last Judgment.
IN POPULAR CULTURESt. Michael's victory over Satan is a powerful symbol in popular culture. On Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue, one lawyer placed a statuette group featuring the saint's victory in his storefront window, as if suggesting how aggressively he would defend his clients. In Salamanca, Spain, we spotted a weathervane with the same subject. And in the 2009 film Brooklyn's Finest the spiritually troubled character played by Ethan Hawke has on his back a large tattoo with St. Michael vanquishing Satan and the first words of the "Prayer to St. Michael." In 2018 Pope Francis suggested that Catholic churches could respond to the scandals and divisions roiling the Church by saying that prayer after each Mass, and many American parishes have chosen to do so.5
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University.
The Weighing of Souls: Hispano-Flemish painter, early 16th century (see the description page)