St. Michael, protect us!

Detail, "Altarpiece of Saint Michael the Archangel" attributed to Joan Mates, 15th century. Photo: Public Domain

The art known as Gothic began in the middle of the 12th century in France. It had nothing whatsoever to do with the Gothic language or the Gothic ethnicity; the name Gothic was first used as an insult by its detractors. 

The aesthetic ideas that inspired the construction of the Gothic cathedrals of France and the technical innovations that made them possible did not remain in one place for long; they soon spread to England, Spain, Italy, Bohemia, and Flanders; art historians use the term International Gothic to refer to its late- 14th- and early- 15th-century expressions. Joan Mates (circa 1370–1431) was one of the first International Gothic masters of Catalonia; this altarpiece painted in tempera on wood panels is attributed to his hand. 

The altarpiece includes small scenes of the Annunciation, the Crucifixion, and six saints. At the bottom Jesus Christ is depicted as the Man of Sorrows, standing waist-deep in his tomb, surrounded by the instruments of his passion, and displaying his wounded hands and side. The icon of the Man of Sorrows was based on a miraculous vision seen by St. Gregory the Great as he celebrated Mass in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome. 

The remaining scenes are all directly related to St. Michael the Archangel. In the center, he thrusts a red spear at one of the seven heads of the Dragon of the Apocalypse. As was common in late medieval art, the angel wears the plate armor of a contemporary knight. This probably indicates the influence of the thriving religious theater — miracle, mystery, and morality plays — and its costuming conventions.

“Altarpiece of Saint Michael the Archangel” attributed to Joan Mates, 15th century. Photo: Public Domain

In International Gothic art, angels not engaged in battle commonly wear liturgical vestments such as albs, copes, and dalmatics rather than the long, flowing robes seen in earlier styles of art. This, too, may be due to the influence of the religious theater.

In the left panel of the altarpiece, which depicts the Fall of the Rebel Angels, Mates followed all three traditions! St. Michael wears armor; other angels he depicted in tunics and albs; still others wear flowing, colorful robes. St. Michael actually appears twice: once in a group of the seven archangels who stand before the Throne of God, and once in battle with Lucifer. 

Enthusiasm for heraldry was widespread in the era of International Gothic. Coats of arms were not only designed for living persons, but imagined for historical figures, biblical patriarchs, the Twelve Apostles, and angels. Argent a Cross Gules (a red cross on a white shield) was attributed early to St. Michael; later it became associated also with St. George. 

Enthusiasm for heraldry was widespread in the era of International Gothic.

In the lower scene of the right panel, St. Michael weighs the souls of the deceased in his scales. Here he wears not armor but a dalmatic, the liturgical vestment of a deacon; this associates him with a priest, also in the scene, who celebrates Mass for the departed. The two tiny figures being weighed are not the souls of two different people (for God’s mercy and justice are not graded on a curve!), but rather representations of the merits and faults of a single person. It is unusual in art to show a soul weighed in the balance and found wanting, but that is the case here. 

Higher in the right panel is an intriguing, less familiar scene involving a bishop and his retinue, a man struck with an arrow, and several cattle. What does this have to do with St. Michael the Archangel? 

It is a depiction of the events surrounding an apparition of St. Michael on Mount Gargano, near the city of Sipontum in the late fourth century. A man whose herd was grazing near the mountain pursued a stray bull to the mouth of a cave. Annoyed at the bull for wandering, he shot an arrow toward it; the arrow turned back and struck the bowman instead. Witnesses, perturbed by the miraculous sign, informed the bishop. He ordered a fast of three days, after which the archangel appeared to him, announcing that the cave was his chosen dwelling on earth, which he desired to keep safe.

Many years later the archangel interceded for the Sipontans in a battle against neighboring pagans. The victors wondered whether they should dare to dedicate the cave and build a church there in thanksgiving, or leave it untouched entirely. 

After another appeal to the local bishop and a three-day fast, St. Michael appeared again. He welcomed the people into the cave but declared that its dedication was unnecessary, as he himself had already dedicated it. Inside the cave they found altars already prepared for the celebration of Mass. It was in memory of this event that a feast of St. Michael was established on Sept. 29. 

Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel

Stained glass depicting St. Michael the Archangel slaying Satan, presented as a dragon, in the Cathedral of St. Bavo in Ghent, Belgium. Photo: jorisvo/Shutterstock

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