Day 5 – St Michael Triumphs over the Devil

Day 5 – Bartolomé Bermejo, St Michael Triumphs over the Devil, 1468, National Gallery, London

Originally posted on 23 March 2020

Thank you all for all your thoughts, suggestions and queries. I’m building up quite a backlog of material, whether its the vengeance of the vegetables, or the continued presence of deceased dogs in art… but today I’m going to reply to a question arising from yesterday’s painting, which was  ‘Why such feminine attributes on archangel Raphael? The ballet feet, long hair tied back, beautiful soft face?’ It reminded me of today’s painting, Bermejo’s ‘St Michael Triumphs over the Devil’, which I also thought about yesterday because of its connection with Superman. 

The connection might at first sight seem obvious – a Superhero has come to the rescue, after all, but that’s not what I was thinking about. Nevertheless, it bears consideration. The Superhero in this case is the Archangel Michael, whose various responsibilities include weighing the souls at the Last Judgement, and defeating the Devil: he is in command of God’s army in the Book of Revelation, making sure all the rebellious angels are vanquished. Rather than the ‘S’ of Superman, Michael has the Heavenly Jerusalem reflected in his golden breastplate. Even if gold would not in any way be effective as armour, it is pure and unchanging (it doesn’t tarnish) – just like God, so it is a symbol of his divine authority. It also reflects beautifully, allowing Bermejo to show off his brilliance as a painter – just look at the way the red of the lining of the cloak is reflected in his calves!

Unlike Superman (or St Michael’s close equivalent, St George) there is no damsel in distress (not that St George’s damsel was especially distressed – but that’s another story). In this case it is a man, whose kneeling position in this instance tells us he is a normal, everyday human, adopting a position of humility. This is the position adopted by most donors – i.e. the people who gave money for the painting – in religious paintings. Also know as the patrons, these are the people who commissioned the works of art. The donor of this work was Antonio Juan, Lord of Tous, not so terribly far from Valencia in Spain. He kneels down leafing through his book of psalms, and has carefully held it open at two pages, Psalms 51 and 130. The first of these starts ‘Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving kindness’ – so he’s clearly worried that he might have done something wrong – while the second says ‘Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord’. It must have been this ‘cry’ that Michael has responded to.

What does he need saving from? Well, the Devil, naturally, which is fashioned here out of everything most unpleasant. It always reminds me of one of the monsters made by Sid Philips, the psychopath neighbour in Toy Story. It has at least four eyes – two in its face and two on its nipples. They are red, and with the black pupils they echo the poppies, which are symbols of death. It also has two mouths. The one in its stomach has a snake for a tongue. Lizard mouths form the elbow joints, and the rest is a combination of bat wings, claws, spikes and scales, everything generally unpleasant. And yet, to my eyes, it remains faintly absurd, even comical. There is no doubt to me that he will be defeated. Michael holds his rock crystal shield in his left hand, and raises his right over his head ready to strike, and, I suspect, once his arm has swung round, the head will be sliced straight off.

Michael has certainly not wasted any time: he’s only just landed. Look at his cloak (this is the real connection with Superman) – it’s still floating up in the air, and at any moment, it will come swishing down by his side, in the same way that Superman’s cloak flows out behind him in flight, and then, as he lands, falls down heavily and wraps around him. Or maybe I’m just imagining that.

But what of the femininity? Compare the details of the faces. Antonio Juan has wrinkles in the corners of his eyes, is dark and swarthy (he was a Spaniard, after all), has hollow cheeks, a slightly hooked nose and more than a hint of five-o’clock shadow – he hasn’t shaved for a day or two.

Michael on the other hand is blond and blemish free, with a perfect complexion, a high forehead, arched eyebrows, a long, straight nose, red, almost cupid’s-bow lips and a rounded, dimpled chin. In fact, he has all the marks of perfect female beauty as described by François Villon (1431-63?) in Le Testament:

…that smooth forehead,
that fair hair,
those arched eyebrows, 
those well-spaced eyes,
that fine straight nose, 
neither large nor small,
those dainty little ears,
that dimpled chin,
the curve of those bright cheeks,
and those beautiful red lips.

(This quotation is from the Penguin Book of French Verse, I, and is quoted in Lorne Campbell’s superb entry on ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’ in his catalogue of Fifteenth Century Netherlandish Paintings in the National Gallery)

But why should these ideal feminine features apply to a bloke called Michael? Are we talking Renaissance gender fluidity here? Not necessarily.  After all, he’s not a bloke, he’s an angel, and unlike us, he hasn’t fallen – he’s in a state of Grace, without Original Sin. It’s only the sinful who, at a certain point, would continue to grow old, get ill and die… Antonio Juan needs help because he is sinful, the marks of that being the swarthiness, the stubble and the wrinkles. And yet – you still might be asking – does Michael have to look so girly? Just think about Shakespeare. Quite apart from the fact that all the girls were played by boys, more than one character talks about young men as if they were girls, with no beard and high voices, and before they have a beard they are clearly not enough of a man to be a lover. This is also Flute’s complaint in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’: ‘Let me not play a woman. I have a beard coming’.Curiously perhaps (and yet, in another way, it is obvious) these features are shared, so often, with those of the Virgin Mary. Like the Archangel Michael she is free from Original Sin, and, as a result, in Roman Catholic belief, she never died. She watches over us, a mother to us all. The fact that Michael has these features (as do other angels – we saw Raphael yesterday) shows us that, with him, we are in safe hands. I’m assuming that those hands are very clean.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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