The chaos of war is transformed into quiet contemplation in this carving of Michael locked in one-to-one combat with Satan. This paradigmatic encounter is often referred to as ‘The Vanquishing of Satan’. It appears in a myriad of forms in the history of art, with Michael’s enemy being represented as a dragon, demon, and man, as the theology surrounding Satan morphs.
This intricate fifteenth-century poplar carving combines Hispanic and Flemish artistic styles to create a multifaceted sculpture, and although its origin and purpose are unknown, its ‘intimate scale’ (just over half a metre high) suggests devotional purposes, perhaps in a private chapel (Boucher, 2006: 27). What we do know is that it would have originally bedazzled: polychromed and bejewelled, making radiant the leader of the heavenly army. This adorning, combined with the minute carved detail of the figure, such as the fine execution of the chain mail and the lion-faced shield, would have likely enticed the devotee into further contemplation of this highly individualized battle.
Seeing it today, stripped of the original celestial splendour and embodying post-Reformation sensibilities, we can only imagine what it would have been like to gaze on the resplendent original. Yet, this unadorned version invites us to realize that the carving itself is a ‘stripped down’ version of the battle recounted in Revelation 12: gone are the heavenly setting, the outbreak of war, and the accompanying armies. Instead, we are witness to an eerily serene combat of opponents locked in one-to-one battle.
Therefore, while the fullness of this sculpture’s original splendour might seem far away, its stripped-down form can still draw us into contemplation. Indeed, in its twenty-first-century guise it can become an encounter with a less ‘angelic’ and more manifestly ‘human’ Michael; a figure stripped of his heavenly vanguard and bedazzling radiance, and subject to the ravages of time. Yet, in spite of this, five-hundred years after its creation, they are still locked in combat. And he still fights on.
Boucher, Bruce. 2006. ‘“War in Heaven”: Saint Michael and the Devil’, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, 32.2: 24–31, 90–91
7 Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, 8 but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9 And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. 10 And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11 And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. 12 Rejoice then, O heaven and you that dwell therein! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”