Angels We Have Heard on High: St. Michael Vanquishing Satan

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Angels We Have Heard on High
The Imagery of Angels in Christian Art
Curated by Camille O'Leary

Raphael, Saint Michael Vanquishing Satan, 1518

Here, the archangel Michael stands atop a prone Satan, spear in hand, ready to defeat his opponent once and for all. Cloth billows around him grandly, enhancing the strong diagonal line created by the spear and Michael's body itself. This scene, taken from the book of Revelations, was painted as a gift for the French king Francis I. Raphael (or perhaps one of his assistants—more on that later) painted it while he lived in Rome, on a commission for Pope Leo X. The dark, metallic color scheme distinguishes the work from Raphael's usual lighter, rosier style, and the angel depicted here has the strength and grace of a warrior triumphing over evil.

One prominent view held by art historians maintains that the work is not by Raphael at all, but by his pupil Giulio Romano, who was notorious for overusing black. Others claim that the uncharacteristic darkness of the shadows is the result of poorly done restoration efforts. Still others take the middle road and say that Giulio painted most of it, but that Raphael helped with certain details, especially Michael's face. Art historians, apparently, can't agree on anything.

Michael, one of the most powerful archangels in Christian tradition, leads the armies of heaven. Many artists, therefore, depicted him as a warrior, and Raphael (or possibly Giulio) follows that tradition. Clad in a short tunic, sandals, and a sword, Michael's sharp, military bearing contrasts with the naked Satan writhing on the ground. No remorse shows on his face as he prepares to end his enemy's treachery. While the dullness of the colors perhaps keeps this painting from being truly great, it is still extremely well done, with Raphael's characteristic smoothness of face and limb.

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