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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