The War in Heaven (pane 7g) part of The Great East Window of York Minster

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

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Hold the Line

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Michelle Fletcher

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

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

Yet perhaps another even more potent threat is detectable: contamination. The white feet of the angels do not trample on the dragon, but instead are separated from their enemy. Indeed, standing on their meagre vantage point, their bodies arch away from the dragon—perhaps suggesting that even the slightest contact would be deadly. This is particularly evident in the right-hand figure. Dressed in blue, 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 which pervades Revelation. It is a text which continually calls its audience to keep themselves from all manners of defilement—even if the outcome is death—in order to be granted entry into the spotless New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:27). Underscoring this theme, Thornton’s heavenly host seem to be holding this purity line, avoiding contamination at all costs, even in the closest mortal combat.