Close Close
Zoom in Zoom in
Zoom out Zoom out
Reset image Reset image
Close Close
Zoom in Zoom in
Zoom out Zoom out
Reset image Reset image
Close Close
Zoom in Zoom in
Zoom out Zoom out
Reset image Reset image

John Thornton

The War in Heaven (pane 7g) part of The Great East Window of York Minster, 1405–08, Stained glass, The Great East Window of York Minster, © Chapter of York: Reproduced by kind permission

Unknown Spanish artist

Saint Michael and the Devil, c.1475–1500, Poplar, formerly polychromed and gilded, 52.4 x 22.9 x 21.3 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago; Chester D. Tripp Endowment, 2004.721, The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY

Pieter Bruegel I

The Fall of the Rebel Angels, 1562, Oil on wood, 117 x 162 cm, Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, Inv. 584, Scala / Art Resource, NY

Hold the Line

Comparative Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

Revelation presents the line separating good from evil as very thin. (Boxall 2006: 179)

The stained-glass panel vividly conveys the push-and-pull of Revelation 12’s combat narrative: ‘Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought [back]’ (v.7).

In battle, seeking higher ground is a key tactical move, and these armed angels have done just that. However, this angelic trio are not standing high on the edge of heaven, but are balanced on a brown, earthbound ledge. Michael is at the centre—clad in white and holding his identifying lance—flanked by two others (most likely Raphael and Gabriel). Beneath, their dragonly foe’s mouth has grabbed Michael’s lance, and the leader of the heavenly armies seems locked in combat for his own weapon. The dragon is fighting back, and physical danger threatens.

Another more potent threat may also be detectable. Contamination. The feet of the angels do not trample on the dragon, but instead are separated from him. Standing on their meagre vantage point, their bodies arch away from the enemy—perhaps suggesting that the slightest contact would be deadly. This is particularly evident in the blue-robed right-hand figure. This angel’s entire body curls away from the dragon’s blue head, making the lines of separation between angel and dragon seem perilously close, both in colour and proximity.

This need to maintain lines of separation echoes the theme of purity that pervades Revelation. It continually calls its audience to avoid all manners of defilement—even to death—in order to be granted entry into the spotless New Jerusalem (21:27). Thornton’s heavenly host seem to be holding this purity line, avoiding contamination even in the closest mortal combat.

The physical lines of separation are more blurred in the poplar carving, as Satan wraps around Michael’s legs. Satan is portrayed as the dragon/demon and the artist has rendered him as a slippery character. He has many heads and various faces, so as the viewer moves around the object, the figure alters with each new angle. From one angle, Satan appears to claw at Michael in what could be one final subversive attempt, or maybe he paws at him, as an animal pleading to be caressed, or even saved. From another angle, the demon’s face appears defeated, with a leg raised in an almost surrendering stance. Yet, move a little more and an impish grin meets you from the top of the skull.

Such a multifaceted rendering reflects Revelation 12:9 where Michael’s opponent is ascribed many names. First, he is ‘the great dragon’, then also ‘the ancient serpent’, then ‘the one called the devil’, then ‘the one called Satan’, and finally, ‘the deceiver of the whole world’. Therefore, as the viewer moves around and sees the changes each new perspective brings, they can palpably perceive the slippery nature of Michael’s multiplicious foe. By rendering Satan as no one creature, but as many morphing ones, this carving facilitates an encounter with Revelation 12 which visualizes a threat hard to pin down: the plasticity of evil.

In Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Fall of the Rebel Angels we also find multiplicitous foes, but a different purpose is served by the shifting of shape. Here, the morphing of form demarcates separation between the heavenly and those that have lost their heavenly place. The angelic horde is rendered in human form (albeit winged) with the armour-clad Michael centred, trampling on and over the various forms of the vanquished. These vanquished opponents are rendered as hybrid beasts (many probably inspired by objects in contemporary cabinets of curiosities; Meganck 2015: 23–25). Altered in different ways during their casting from heaven, the bestial mass is being sucked into the abyss, with the great dragon acting as an axis for the whole hybrid host. But for all their various forms, they are united in trajectory. Unlike the hovering humanoid angels, the morphing mass is only going one way: down and away from the light. This vividly highlights the thrusting directional element of Revelation: ‘he [the dragon] was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him’ (v.9).

In Revelation 12, the war in heaven is over in just a few verses and the drama of the brief account can easily be missed. Visual renderings of this warfare allow viewers to take a ringside seat and spend time considering the tussle: the separation of sides, the dangers that prowl, and the lines that are to be held, whatever the cost.

 

References

Meganck, Tine L. 2015. Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Fall of the Rebel Angels: Art, Knowledge and Politics on the Eve of the Dutch Revolt (Milan: Silvana Editoriale)

Next exhibition: Revelation 13