Saint Michael and the Devil by Unknown Spanish Artist

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

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Stripping Down

Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

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.

 

References

Boucher, Bruce. 2006. ‘“War in Heaven”: Saint Michael and the Devil’, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, 32.2: 24–31, 90–91


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