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Will he be swayed?


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This 15c fresco, by an unknown painter of the school of Spoleto, hews to a fairly standard iconography. The winged archangel is shown in Roman military dress: cuirass and tunica loricata. (On the vagaries of Roman armor down the centuries, represented more and more as a feminine skirt, I'll have more to say later: for now these will have to suffice: a fresco, also of the 15c, in S. Barbara de' Librai in Rome; and the 18c engraved frontispiece to an edition of Pliny.)

St. Michael holds a lance, with which he is almost certainly piercing the Devil represented as a dragon, who in this case has fallen victim not so much to the Protector of sinners as to damp along the lower walls of the church.

He also holds a pair of scales, in which usually the soul of the deceased is being weighed against his sins, often represented as toads or such. You will notice that here, as very often, the lighter scale is that with the good deeds: a solid view of human nature I'm afraid, although many depictions of this scene introduce an ambiguity by showing the Devil pulling down on the lower scale, so that there is doubt as to just who is responsible for the evil. (Unfortunately, in this fresco here, even a close squint at the lower scale from 10 cm away proved the contents undecipherable, as well as any netherly interference.)

As the highest angel closest to God, Michael is expected to be good, and thus the Advocate; but he is also traditionally the holder of the scales, and thus the Judge. In this sense, the Archangel Michael is the embodiment of the balance between God's Justice and God's Mercy.

This balance oftener than not leads to the archangel being shown as rather sternly impartial; but the artist here has painted with a particularly gentle touch. Michael is obviously listening to the pleading of the naked soul, whom you can see in the close-up: on his knees, praying.

This gentleness is finally in keeping with Christian tradition; consider the words of the Requiem Mass: "Sed signifer Sanctus Michael repraesentet nos in aeternum" — "Yet may the standard-bearer Saint Michael present us up to eternity."

On the other hand during my trip to Italy in 1997, somewhere I saw a medieval inscription, in which Christ and St. Michael were invoked in parallel language as the saviors of sinners: and that is probably too far. As soon as I can find it, this really very unorthodox item will be placed or linked here: but this fresco, and a widespread cult of the archangel thruout Umbria, make it less surprising to me.

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Page updated: 19 Apr 02