Michael the Archangel

Because September 29 is the feast of St. Michael and All Angels (also called Michaelmas), this post focuses on Michael the Archangel, or “chief angel,” as he appears in stained glass and sculpture at two cathedrals in Europe and three churches in the U.S. Many Christian denominations regard Michael as a saint, and he was especially popular in the Middle Ages. His 11th century abbey shrine at Mont St. Michel in France still draws an estimated 3 million visitors each year (photo 1, below), and sacred structures on both sides of the Atlantic continue to bear his name. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints reports that no less than 686 churches in England were dedicated to Michael the Archangel by the end of the Middle Ages, and a quick Google search reveals that hundreds of Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and Orthodox churches throughout the U.S. are named for him.

Mont St. Michel 21. Mont St. Michel, France 

The Bible and Koran both mention Michael. The Old Testament Book of Daniel describes him as “one of the chief princes” of the heavenly host, whose face had “the appearance of lightning” when he came to Daniel in a vision to offer encouragement. Michael said, “O man greatly beloved, fear not: peace be unto thee, be strong, yea be strong” (Dan. 10:19).  Michael’s name in Hebrew means “Who is like unto God?” and in some cases viewers can identify him by the Latin translation of his name–“Quis ut Deus?”– inscribed on a shield or scroll, as in a modern sculpture at Cologne Cathedral (photos 2 & 3).

2. Portal with St. Michael Trumeau, Kolner Dom, Cologne, Germany (click to enlarge)

2. Portal with St. Michael Trumeau Sculpture, Kolner Dom, Cologne, Germany (click to enlarge)

St. Michael,

3. St. Michael’s Shield with “Quis ut Deus,” Kolner Dom, Cologne Germany

The New Testament’s Book of Revelation describes Michael as the leader of an army of angels who prevail in a celestial war against “the great dragon” and the forces of evil.  In this apocalyptic vision, Michael and his forces cast out the dragon—Satan—and his angels from heaven to the earth. Thus, one often sees Michael wielding a sword and sometimes wearing armor as he stands over a defeated dragon or subdued Satan to symbolize the triumph of good over evil.  Two statues at Brussels’ Cathedral of Saints Michael and Gudula, one with a dragon and the other with a horned Satan, provide good illustrations of the type (photos 4 – 8).

Sts. Michael & Gudula Cathedral, Brussels (postcard)

4. Cathedral of Saints Michael & Gudula, Brussels (postcard)

St. Michael and Dragon, Late Middle Ages, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels

5. St. Michael and Dragon, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels

Defeated Dragon, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels

6. Dragon Detail, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels

St. Michael and Satan, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels

7. St. Michael and Satan, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels

8. Satan Detail, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels

8. Satan Detail, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels

in the Middle Ages, Michael was the patron saint for chivalry, and he’s now deemed the patron of police officers, paramedics, firefighters, and the military. Modern stained glass artists continue the tradition of depicting him as a mighty warrior, and one of our “better angels,” in the perpetual struggle between good and evil. A 19th century window at Marquette University’s Gesu Church, made by the studios of F.X. Zettler in Germany, shows a brawny Michael driving Satan into the fires of hell (photo 9).

St. Michael & Satan, Church of the Gesu, Milwaukee, WI

9 St. Michael & Satan, Church of the Gesu, Milwaukee, WI

More recently, a “Freedom Window,” designed by Joseph G. Reynolds, Jr. and installed at the Washington National Cathedral in 1953, depicts St. Michael in good company with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Moses, Martin Luther and others who courageously confronted the evils of their day (photos 10-12).

St. Michael (center left) in the Freedom Window, Washington National Cathedral, DC

10. St. Michael (center, left lancet) in the Freedom Window, Washington National Cathedral, DC (click to enlarge)

11. Abraham Lincoln and Emancipation, Freedom Window, Washington National Cathedral, DC

11. Abraham Lincoln and Emancipation, Freedom Window, Washington National Cathedral, DC

12. Martin Luther and the 95 Theses, Freedom Window, Washington National Cathedral, DC

12. Martin Luther and the 95 Theses, Freedom Window, Washington National Cathedral, DC

Though Michael appears most often as a protagonist in the fight against evil, he’s also prominent in scenes of the Last Judgment. He typically holds a set of scales in which souls are weighed before Christ issues everlasting judgment. The outstanding 13th century tympanum sculpture in the center portal at Amiens Cathedral (photos 13-15) shows Michael standing between two angels who blow their trumpets to announce Judgment Day as the dead rise from their graves. Christ is enthroned, seated above the saved and damned. Below and to his right, angels escort the faithful to heaven where they receive crowns. Below and to his left, demons prod the others into the open jaws of Leviathan, a symbol for hell.

West Facade, Amiens Cathedral, France

13. West Facade, Amiens Cathedral, France

Last Judgment Tympanum Sculpture, Amiens Cathedral, France

14. Last Judgment Tympanum Sculpture, Amiens Cathedral, France (click to enlarge)

Last Judgment Detail, Amiens Cathedral, France

15. Last Judgment Detail, Amiens Cathedral, France

Stained glass artists also portrayed Michael in Judgment Day scenes. Michael hovers on the wings of a cherub in the vast 15th century Last Judgment Window at St. Michael & Gudula Cathedral in Brussels (photos 16 & 17). At Denver’s Immaculate Conception Cathedral, he commands a central position at Christ’s feet, standing at the ready in shimmering golden armor. The stained glass windows at the Cathedral in Denver were also designed by Germany’s F.X. Zettler studios, and installed around 1912 (photo 18).

Last Judgment Window, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels

16. Last Judgment Window, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels (click to enlarge)

Michael with Scales Detail, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels

17. Michael with Scales Detail, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels

Judgment Day Window, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Denver, CO

18. Judgment Day Window, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Denver, CO (click to enlarge)

Michael Klug, mikejklug@aol.com, 9/29/14

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Attributes of the Apostles: Peter

If you’re not fluent in Latin, or if an inscribed or painted name has faded away, it might be difficult to tell one saint from another as they appear in stained glass and sculpture in a Gothic cathedral. That’s where “attributes” can help. Medieval artists enabled viewers to identify prophets, evangelists, and saints by adding an item associated with the subject to their works. Dr. Beth Williamson, a British art historian, observes in her book, Christian Art: A Very Short Introduction, that an attribute “acted as a pictorial label.” She goes on to explain that “attributes might make reference to a significant event in a saint’s life, or a particular achievement for which they are known.” In this way, attributes also served as teaching devices that pointed to key elements in important stories.

1. St. Peter Sculpture, 13th Century, Rouen Cathedral, France

1. St. Peter Sculpture, 13th Century, Rouen Cathedral, France

Unschooled medieval church-goers could easily identify a statue of St. Peter, for example, by the “keys of the kingdom” that he holds. The keys illustrate the verse in Matthew’s gospel where Christ says to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”  The statue of Peter holding an over-sized key at Rouen Cathedral (photo 1, above) is one of many fine examples of this attribute put to good use. In this post, we’ll also visit Chartres Cathedral in France and four churches in the U.S. as we review Peter’s various attributes.

Peter, the impetuous fisherman who would come to be known as Rome’s first bishop, has been a popular subject for artists since Christianity’s early days. Churches throughout the world are named for him, including St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the seat of the papacy and legendary site of Peter’s burial. Many of those namesake cathedrals and churches, as well as dozens of sacred structures dedicated to other saints, contain an image of Peter with keys. A fine 13th century statue on the North Porch of Chartres Cathedral shows a set of keys dangling from Peter’s wrist (photo 2).

2. Peter (far right) with Simeon and John on Chartres Cathedral's North Porch. France

2. Peter (far right) with Simeon and John on Chartres Cathedral’s North Porch, France (click to enlarge)

But because Peter was involved in many “significant events” recorded in the gospels and Acts of the Apostles, artists often add other attributes to their representations of him. At Chartres, Peter wears a papal tiara and the pallium (Y-shaped sash), visual cues to his traditional designation among Roman Catholics as the first pope (photo 3). Observe also that he stands on a pedestal shaped like a small rock out-cropping (photo 4). The rocky pedestal recalls Christ’s words in Matthew’s gospel: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” This speaks to the view among medieval theologians that Peter was preeminent, or had “primacy,” among Jesus’ disciples. Moreover, the sculptor probably knew that Peter’s name derives from petrus, the Greek word for “rock.”

St. Peter Detail, North Porch, Chartres Cathedral, France

3. St. Peter Detail, North Porch, Chartres Cathedral, France

3. Peter's Pedestal on Chartres Cathedral's North Porch, France

4. Peter’s Pedestal, North Porch, Chartres Cathedral, France

Modern artists depict Peter in much the same way. A 20th century sculpture by John Angel at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City continues the “key tradition” with Peter clutching a large key to his chest (photo 5). But there’s a twist to the story in this sculpture. A crowing rooster stands at Peter’s feet (photo 6). In contrast to Chartres where the emphasis is on Peter’s primacy, the rooster reminds us of his human shortcomings and failings, as when he denied that he knew Christ three times before the rooster crowed. A scene on the pedestal shows Peter with his hands raised in denial as he maintains, “I do not know the man!”

4. St. Peter, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City

5. St. Peter Statue by John Angel, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City (click to enlarge)

5. Peter's Rooster and Pedestal, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, NYC

6. Peter’s Rooster and Pedestal, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, NYC

In many cases, saints are known by the instruments of their death. Legend has it that Peter was crucified upside down in Rome, during Nero’s reign. The story probably has its origins in an apocryphal book, The Acts of Peter, which dates to the second century. Jacobus de Voragine, writing in the 1200’s, compiled this and many other stories and tales about the saints in a popular book called The Golden Legend.  The Golden Legend relates that Peter was uncomfortable with a regular crucifixion. He told his executioners, “Since I am not worthy of hanging on the cross as my Lord did, turn my cross around and crucify me upside down!” The Roman soldiers, who reportedly really did  amuse themselves by sometimes changing the position of the cross for executions, obliged him. An inverted Latin cross alludes to this legend on the pedestal for St. Peter’s statue at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC (photo 7), while a stained glass roundel at Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Philadelphia actually depicts it (photo 8).

7. Inverted Cross and Heraldic Keys on Pedestal, National Cathedral, Washington, DC

7. Inverted Cross and Heraldic Keys of the Kingdom on St. Peter’s Pedestal, National Cathedral, Washington, DC

8. St. Peter's Martyrdom, Sts. Peter & Paul Cathedral, Philadelphia, PA

8. St. Peter’s Martyrdom, Sts. Peter & Paul Cathedral, Philadelphia, PA

Papal garb and upside down crosses notwithstanding, the key is Peter’s most common attribute. It shows up often in modern stained glass throughout North America. Two examples close this post on Peter’s attributes (photos 9 & 10). The window at Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church shows Peter holding keys with his left hand and a book with his right. The book alludes to the two New Testament epistles attributed to the apostle, and is a common symbol used to identify authors of books in the Bible.

St. Peter, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago

9. St. Peter, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago

10. Peter Receives the Keys, Sts. Peter & Paul Cathedral, Philadelphia, PA

10. Peter Receives the Keys, Sts. Peter & Paul Cathedral, Philadelphia, PA

Michael Klug, 09/12/14, mikejklug@aol.com