Through the glass darkly

‘The archangel loved heights’ Michaelmas Day, September 29

So wrote Henry Adams in his study of the 12th century European Renaissance, Mont-Saint Michel and Chartres, of the great Romanesque church and monastery perched on a high rock off the coast of Normandy. Like so many churches set on high places throughout the Christian world, it was dedicated to the archangel Michael, who makes his most memorable appearance in Revelation:

“Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.”

Why, of all the angels and archangels, is it Michael who has always been associated with high places? There is evidence Michael was venerated in the fourth century AD, but as for the association with heights, there is another possibility.

In November, 590, a Christian deacon named Gregory was elected pope after a plague had carried off the previous occupant, Pelagius. Rome had become a virtual ghost town by this time. Its population had shrunk drastically through war and famine and disease. The 1,000-year-old Senate had ceased to function. Cattle grazed in the forum and on the Capitoline Hill where the Caesars had their palaces. The coliseum was already a ruin. The city had long ceased to be the capital even of the much diminished Gothic kingdom of Italy.

Gregory ordered the people of the plague-ridden city to gather in the seven churches of Rome, to pray and ask for deliverance. On the third day, early in the morning, large crowds came out in procession, chanting Kyrie Eleison – “Lord, have mercy!” - heading for the church of Santa Maria Maggiore on the Esquiline Hill.

As the crowd passed Hadrian’s tomb, suddenly the archangel Michael appeared atop the tomb’s great round dome, sword flashing in the early light of a November morning. As they watched, with a mixture of wonder and fear, Michael dramatically sheathed his sword in the scabbard that hung round his waist.

A murmur ran through the crowd. Then tears of joy. For the beleaguered people realised that the great warrior was showing them God had heard their prayers and decreed the plague would end.

Of course, it is impossible to say what exactly did happen. But a few years after Gregory’s death in 604 a chapel in honour of the archangel was built on top of the tomb and centuries later a bronze statue was added of Michael in the act of sheathing his sword.

Angels are Hebrew by origin, though clearly indebted to the pre-Islamic Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, in which they also figure, and Greek by name (Angelos means ‘Messenger’ ), and are found in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Sometime in the sixth century a book appeared called the Celestial Hierarchies, a guide to the ranks of the invisible assistants of God. Written by someone calling himself Dionysius the Areopagite, purporting to be the disciple Paul met in Athens, such an authoritative pedigree gave it enormous influence throughout the Middle Ages.

But back to Michael, whose churches on high places spread during the Medieval period throughout the Christian world, from Syria to Spain, from North Africa throughout Europe, and, of course, Ireland. In fact, the Celtic countries took to Michael in a big way, naming both churches and children after a saint ready-made for a people with its own warrior tradition.

The most dramatic instance of Ireland’s devotion to the archangel who “loved heights” is Skellig Michael, the larger of the two rocky islands, eight miles off the Kerry coast. Here a handful of monks occupied six round stone huts and prayed in two small oratories from roughly 500 to 1200 AD. It is a suitable place for warrior monks whose vocation was fighting the dragon of evil.

There is a wonderful Irish poem that begins, “Mhicheil nam buadh, char tam fo d’ dhion”, which captures the devotion of those who have found in Michael the great protector:

“Thou Michael the Victorious,

I make my circuit under thy shield.

Thou Michael of the white steed,

And the bright, brilliant blade.

Conquerer of the Dragon,

Be thou at my back.

Thou warrior of the king of all.

O Michael the Victorious,

The Glory of my eye.”

Archangels and angels are much diminished these days. From the majestic figures of orthodox iconography, they now tend to resemble Walt Disney’s Tinkerbell or a seventies’ surfer girl with wings. An unworthy fate.

Perhaps it is time to reclaim them as the majestic symbols of the spirit they once were and remain.

Barnaby ffrench

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