Top 5 Saints #2: Saint Michael the Archangel

You knew I couldn’t make it through 6 articles about religion without some Gustave Doré, I’ve already written about how much I love his work. This is from Doré’s illustrations of the epic poem ‘Paradise Lost’ by John Milton. It tells the tale of the wars for the heavens, beginning with Lucifer’s rebellion against God. Here we see the result of that. The radiant Michael, top-centre, beams of light like lightning around him, casts the rebellious angels to their fall. Among their number is Lucifer himself, whose fall would see a name change to Satan, and the adoption of his ire and ‘evil’. The rebels are all in poses of defence or desperation, closed of posture or reaching for safety. The angels of heaven, meanwhile, are open, aggressive, in forward pursuit. Their power and dominance, the triumph of ‘good’ over ‘evil’ is evident. The rebels descend from the glorious light down to an unknown darkness. This is the essence of Michael. (Credit: Gustave Doré, Public Domain).

We must – absolutely must – have something on our lists that is the exception to the rule. Saint Michael is not a true saint. He’s not even a folk saint like Julian. There’s good reason for that. How does one canonise an angel? If not for that reason Michael would be top billing!

His name, Michael (or, broken down, Mika El) translates from its native Hebrew as ‘Who is like God’, which many people take as meaning he is similar to God. Michael is, besides Christ, the closest to God. However it can be read in another way. It can be read as “Who is like God?” That question mark is important. He may not be a being similar to God. He may be the agent who begs the question; Which of you is actually anything like our supreme deity? Who is like God? It’s rhetorical. The answer, an answer Michael is the very enforcer of, is nothing and no one.

The Archangel Michael, then, is God’s spear, God’s hammer, and God’s righteousness. He is also the holy shield, the Aegis, of the pious and particularly is recognised as so in Jewish tradition. He is the protector of the Jewish people. He is the very authority of God and exerts the force of Heavenly superiority.

He’s metal as fuck!

Stick some flaming hills and shit in the background and how is this not a metal album cover? A modern interpretation, I think. Either way it shows Michael at his Michaelest. A foot upon the figure beneath him in dominance, the figure is bound in a chain, Michael twisting his body, sword raised and pointed ready to strike and kill evil itself. Angels are said to be unwavering, emotionless in their service to the Lord. Is that look on Michael’s face a minor imperfection, then? Or is there anger from the lords servants, are they permitted to feel when what they feel is disdain for evil? He is righteous angry and on a warpath. (Credit: NightmareCreaturesOnline, Used Without Permission)

I’m a huge Satan fan. When you put aside deliberate propaganda, Satan seems less evil and more misunderstood. I know that’s a trope, I’m sorry but it’s just how I feel. It’s not Satan who performs untold horrors on Job in the Book of Job, it’s God at Satan’s dare. If Michael begs the question “Who is like God?” then Satan begs the questions “What makes God so great?” and “Who is not capable of being like God?” Satan prods at the imperfections of God that Michael covers up.

Satan is often described as a deceiver, a trickster and a corrupting force on humanity. However, again, reading further around the scripture and particularly other non-biblical translations of the Hebrew books in the Old Testament, and old Hebrew stories, to me it always seems more like he is encouraging people to know they can be bad. They can be, but they don’t have to be. This makes sense since ‘Satan’ is not necessarily used as a proper noun, a name, much at all in the Bible. Rather it is a role, a job title, translating from Hebrew roughly as “Opponent”, “Accuser” or “Adversary” – It is a legal role. The Satan is literally playing Devil’s Advocate!

My favourite image of Lucifer, as a fallen, dejected now former angel. This does not show unbridled evil, it shows despair and vulnerability. Lucifer is ambition itself, ambition so great it seeks to dethrone God. He has failed in his first attempt and his pride, his purpose, his strength is all wounded and in question. His mission is an impossible one yet still he strives and in opposing God he incurs the wrath of God’s sword, Michael. They will become great enemies. The portrayal of Lucifer/Satan in Paradise Lost is a surprisingly nuanced one. (Credit: Gustave Doré, Public Domain)

So Satan, to me, shows one can have knowledge of evil, one can have an awareness of the advantages that can be gained through that evil, but one can also choose to do good regardless; to give up the advantages of evil in the pursuit of good. I find that quite powerful, and it makes those who pursue holiness knowing evil that much more powerful to me.

It’s one of the reasons I hate the ‘fall of mankind’ shtick. That came about not because Eve ate some errant apple God forbade her to eat. The fruit she was forbidden to eat was the ‘fruit of the tree of knowledge good and evil’. Adam and Even were not pious or chaste in Eden, they were just ignorant. Likewise, after eating the fruit they were not impious or evil, they were embarrassed and ashamed.

I’ve got a bible series so read about it there. It just makes me second guess the whole idea that the serpent (not identified in Genesis as a deity or ‘the Devil’ but given that meaning later – There’s a nice article about it here) tempted Eve in a deliberate plot to make humanity ‘evil’. The temptation was to give them knowledge of things God had deemed them to be not worthy of knowing and…Well…Look at my website! I’m totally against any authority claiming there are things the supposedly ‘lowly’ should not know! If we take the serpent as being Satan, I situationally agree with him here.

Needless to say I think Satan is one of, if not the most powerful angel in the Christian lore.

Yeah, get used to this pose from Michael. He is the symbol of good’s triumph over evil – that’s what this motif represents. Michael is stood here, righteously, dominant, his foot on the throat of his opponent, usually a devil, demon or dragon. He cuts a perfect, Platonic, form. Angels are often presented in this idealised fashion, the angels, the divine, removed from men but the very picture of ideal manhood. Is this God’s image, in which both angels and humans were made? His opponent is a chimaera, an abomination, by comparison. He has a man’s body but with bird-like feet, and what were once his feathered angel’s wings are now creepy, fleshy and bat-like. They are less than angels now, and Michael proves it. (Credit: Marco Dente, 16th Century, Public Domain)

So when I say Michael kills him, and pretty soundly too, well it gives you an idea of Michael’s place. This angel is the very guardian of God, his ways and his people.

“And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.

And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: He was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.”

Revelation 12:7-9

The ‘dragon’ is clearly identified as Satan and the Devil. Michael leads the armies of heaven into battle with Satan and his unrighteous horde and casts them out into the Earth. Now this may not sound like he kills him but Revelation is a prophetic book, it foretells the end times. Being left on the earth when that happens is akin to death and damnation.

From Doré’s illustrations of the bible, this shows not only the scene of Michael plunging, sword aimed at his enemy, the great dragon, Satan himself, from Revelation 12:7-9, it also depicts a woman holding a child, presumably Mary and the infant Christ;
“And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.” Revelation 12:1-2.
Michael, then, is not merely an aggressor. He is protector. He shields those who are vulnerable, and delivers them from the ills and evil that would seek to do them harm.
This is a masterful composition. The dragons below are huge, bellowing creatures. They dwarf Michael and his angels. Yet we see in the background, bathed in divine light, that no matter how big the dragon there are far too many angels, they appear to be forming, being shaped, by the holy light itself. (credit: Gustave Doré, Public Domain)

The Book of Revelation is believed to have been written sometime around the end of the 1st century CE – around 90-95. Yet there is an earlier reference to the same event in the Book of Daniel, an apocalyptic book from around 200 BCE. In this book Daniel, the prophet, is having a vision during a period of fasting, foreseeing troubles, conflicts and the end of time. He is told;

“And at that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book.”
Daniel 12:1

Michael is the protector.

An icon of Archangel Michael, from, I think, the Cathedral in the name of Archangel Michael in Mozyr, Belarus. The Orthodox tradition of the East inherited much of its art style from the Byzantines. Iconography like this is common. Here we see Michael the protector. His spear is more like a staff, topped with a radiant cross. His shield has a big sun-like motif, possibly symbolising God, and a cross symbolising Christ. Could the pure white background be symbolic of the holy spirit? If not there is the emblem on his chest. An 8-pointed star with the triangular motif usually associated with the trinity. (Credit: Bielpincet CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Whatever you think of the religion or the theology, Michael is the hero, the angel who shall lead the armies of heaven and ‘goodness’ to victory against the armies of hell and ‘evil’.

I’m well into eschatology (the study of the apocalypse, the end of time itself, the destruction of the universe and life as we know it!) I’m a morbid sort but there’s something about the transformational imagery invoked in almost all end-of-times prophecies that I love. Seldom are these true ends, often they are just a doorway to something new, something different. It takes a subject that could be looked at very nihilistically and instead makes it pose more transcendental questions that warrant thinking about even if you’re not religious.

Life evolves, it always has and it always will. But we do not know if the universe is permanent, we do know that through entropy it is likely to find a state inhospitable for life and organisms as we know them. The earth itself is unlikely to survive the end of the sun’s life. The sun, as it cools, will grow its hellish exterior until it is likely to end up consuming everything between itself and Jupiter. If life is to survive that, how is it to do so? Can it, even? All life will end, life will have an exodus moment and spread to safer parts of the cosmos, or else it must adapt and become something wholly different. This is what eschatology does for me. It makes me think of how life, a physical, chemical, biological process, could transcend these seemingly insurmountable challenges the future almost certainly holds.

A more modern interpretation, from the church of St. Stephen the Martyr in Omaha, Nebraska, USA. Here his face is placcid, peaceful even. Despite the fact that he is clearly prepared for battle, wieding his fiery sword. His shield, this time, is triangular – a symbol of the trinity? And the Latin inscription, so often seen on his shield, “Quis ut Deus” translates to “Who is like God?”, his name in Hebrew, and that strong, rhetorical question. (Credit: Workman, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

There are few more important figures in Abrahamic (relating to the major religions with Abraham as their root – Islam, Christianity and Judaism being the main three) eschatology than Michael. He is so important that some believe Michael is merely the angelic form of Christ himself. On Earth, during his incarnation, he was Yeshua ben Joseph, Joshua son of Joseph, the man we would call Jesus Christ. In heaven, before his incarnation and after his ascension, many believe he is Michael; God’s sword, God’s shield, the very leader of the resistance against evil and the deliverer of the righteous to salvation. I have read it is a particularly prevalent belief among Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

a 19th Century mosaic of the four archangels from St. John’s Church, Warminster, UK. Note that they are all referred to as saints despite their being angels and not really able to be canonised. They are widely considered saints regardless.
St. Michael is in his usual pose. His face here is particularly disdainful.
St. Gabriel, the messenger archangel holds a white flower, symbolising purity, and a sign reading “Ave Maria”. A reference to his role in delivering the message of her impregnation by God to Mary. He is also the angel who helped the prophet Daniel to translate his divine visions, and the angel who, in Islamic tradition, dictated the Qur’an.
Saint Raphael is here seen with a small child. This is likely not Christ, but Tobias, son of Tobit from the Book of Tobit. Tobit becomes blind and, shunned by society, seeks money he is owed and sends Tobias off to collect it. A boy could not make the journey alone and so seeks a companion. He finds the statuesque and stoic Raphael. Raph is often depicted as cold, matter-of-fact – but kind. He is the archangel of healing. He is very interesting to look up.
Finally we have St. Uriel, holding a holy book. This is because Uriel’s role is as a teacher, a deliverer of divine knowledge. Uriel is sent by God to help answer the questions of Ezra in the Second Book of Esdras, and to help Enoch interpret his vision and prophecies.
The remarkable thing is only Michael and Gabriel are mentioned by name in the Bible. (Credit: Public Domain)

Needless to say such an important figure has also achieved the status of being a symbol. The winged warrior, his holy sword or spear and shield in hand, slaying a dragon, demon or monster that symbolises evil itself. I never tire of seeing Saint Michael the Archangel depicted in paintings, statues, sculpture or stained glass. I love to mock art and yet I have few chances to do so with Mike here, because how can you? Unless someone has done a very bad job he just tends to look…cool!

As much as my morals and ethics may empathise with Satan, I try to stand on the side of good. Michael is the very symbol of the unconquerable fighting strength of good. Together they represent a dichotomy, the yin and yang of the human psyche. As much as I may love how Satan enables my questioning and pursuit of knowledge – two things I could never give up. Michael is always there as a holy light. No matter what I learn, particularly where what I learn is a means to gain wealth, status or advantage to myself, I should still follow Michael’s lead and do right.

Michael from a stained glass window in Worcester Cathedral, UK. We have discussed his arms and protection so let’s focus on the scales. Michael slays evil, but first he must judge what is evil. Thus Michael is associated with judgement. When not depicted as a Holy Warrior he is often seen weighing souls in judgement, furthering his eschatological role. After the second coming, after the battle between good and evil is done, we shall all be resurrected and judged this way by Michael himself.

I know full well I’m likely to fail his standards. Especially if those standard include an unwavering loyalty to God. But I’d rather it be Michael do this than the Heavenly Father himself. I at least believe the archangel fit to judge me.
(Credit: Robin Croft CC-BY-2.0)

Michael is the angelic embodiment of good triumphing over evil. He is the symbol of all that I want to see achieved. For that reason, despite the fact that he has not been officially canonised a saint, Michael makes the list. It is also for that reason he is only number two. But our number one is no less deserving of the spot, in my eyes.

Want to know about more saints? Read our full list.

Happy All Saints’ Day!
Top 5 Saints #5: Saint Mary – Our Virgin of Sorrows and Mother of Christ.
Top 5 Saints #4: Saint Sebastian – A former Roman guard turned arrow-filled Martyr.
Top 5 Saints #3: Saint Julian of Norwich – Locked herself in a cell for holiness.

Top 5 Saints #1: Saint Francis of Assisi – Pious, compassionate and a role model.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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