The Story of St Michael the Archangel

Statue of St Michael the Archangel in our Church

The Archangel Saint Michael is perhaps one of the best known of the angels.  Like Saint Gabriel and Saint Raphael, he is not only an angel but also an Archangel, which is a chief angel.  He is honoured in Christian tradition but also among the Jews and Muslims. 

The name “Michael” means “who is like God”.  The Greek word “angelos” means messenger.  Angels are incorporeal creatures who praise God, act as messengers between God and man, and serve as guardians of nations, peoples, and individuals. 

Angels are often ordered into nine categories and are mentioned 192 times in the scripture.  Of these St. Michael’s name is mentioned 4 times:

  1. Daniel 10:13 ~ But the prince (that is the guardian angel of Persia) of the kingdom of the Persians resisted me one and twenty days, and behold Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me…
  2. Daniel 12:1 ~ But at that time (end of the world) shall Michael rise up, the great prince, who stands up for the children of your people.
  3. Jude 1:9 ~ Yet when Michael the archangel was fiercely disputing with the devil about the body of Moses…
  4. Revelation 12:7 – 9 ~ And there was a battle in heaven: Michael and his angels battled with the dragon, and although the dragon and his angels.  fought back, they were overpowered and lost their place in heaven.  The huge dragon, the ancient serpent known as the devil or Satan, the seducer of the whole world, was driven out and hurled down to earth and his minions with him. 

From these passages four charges are often assigned to St. Michael:

  • to fight against Satan and evil
  • to rescue the souls of the faithful from the power of the devil
  • to be the champion of God’s people
  • to summon people’s souls from this earth and bring them to judgement

It is the later, future-oriented, drama found in the account from the Apocalypse (Revelation), which combined with other extra-scriptural and legendary traditions, to give us the story of St. Michael, as we know it:

After the creation of the heavens and earth, there was a battle in heaven.  Lucifer, the “light-bearer”, the “morning star”, who was the chief among angels, rebelled against God.  Because of Lucifer’s envy, pride, and desire to sit upon God’s throne, he did not want to be subject to God or to serve Him.  He took a third of the angels into revolt with him.  Michael, however, was loyal to God, and declared he would serve God, for “who is like unto God” (“Michael”). 

St Michael the Archangel Orthodox Icon

With the other two-thirds of the angels he defeated Lucifer and cast him and his supporters out of heaven.  Lucifer now became called Satan (“adversary”) and those angels who supported him became devils.  As a reward for his loyalty Michael was made the chief angel.  Due to this leadership role the Church named the Archangel a Saint, and the Eastern Liturgy assigned him the title of the “Archistrategos” (“highest general”).

Besides these roles of a military nature there is another role which was assigned to St. Michael, that of healer.  This tradition started in Phrygia where many healing hot springs were dedicated to him.  Soon Constantinople revered him as a celestial doctor.  As time went on, he was invoked in a variety of other roles.  In Egypt he became the patron of the Nile, and his feast is celebrated on the day that the river rises.  Germany and France also have a special veneration for him that involves rugged natural landscape, such as mountains, the most famous of all being Mont. St. Michael in Brittany.  He is the guardian of Portugal where his feast is celebrated on the third Sunday of June by special permission of the Pope.  Among his other titles are: Prince, Angel of Chivalry, Angel of Judgement, and Angel of the Sun.

The cult of St. Michael is very old.  The Jewish people revered him as the patron of Israel, and he often appeared in the Hebraic Kabbal and other mystical writings and traditions. 

Pietro Perugino painted this altarpiece (c1496-1500) for the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. It stood in the side chapel dedicated to the Archangel Michael in the Carthusian monastery in Pavia, a town outside Milan.

In Christianity Pope Sylvester in Rome and Patriarch Alexander in Alexandria both introduced the feast in the fourth century.  The Western Church celebrates the Feast of Saint Michael on September 29th, along with Saint Gabriel, Saint Raphael, and all the Archangels, while in the Eastern Church this same Feast is celebrated on November 8th.

The first emperor to convert to Christianity, Constantine the Great (324 – 337), built a church in honour of St. Michael on the Bosphorus at a spot called Anaplus, some fifty miles south of Constantinople.  On the opposite headland on the Asiatic shore, the emperor Justinian built another church in St. Michael’s honour.  During the fourth and fifth centuries alone, within Constantinople and its vicinity, there were built some fifteen churches and chapels dedicated to this Archangel.  Other cities and towns soon followed.  Ravena, for example, erected a large church to St. Michael and kept his feast on June 9 th.  During the reign of the emperor Arcadius, yet another famous church was built in Constantinople, by some healing springs, dedicated to St. Michael and all the “synaxis” (synod, assembly) of angels.  This feast of the Synaxis of St. Michael and all the angels was celebrated on November 8th, and hence, this date became the main one in which the Archangel was revered in the Eastern Church.  This feast quickly spread over the entire Greek, Syrian, and Coptic Church.

In both Western paintings and Eastern iconography, St. Michael is represented in certain standard artistic ways.  He has a halo, denoting his sanctity, and is winged as most angels are. 

Archangel Michael overthrows the rebel angel, c.1660-65 by Giordano, Luca (1634-1705); Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria

The concept of angels being winged was a late one in Judaism, coming after the Babylonian captivity.  The winged lions and bulls of the Assyrians and the griffins of the Hittites influenced the Israelites.  In Western pictures he usually carries either a sword (denoting his defeat over Satan and evil), and/or a scale (depicting his role in the last judgement).  Often a horned, winged, Satan or dragon is being trampled underfoot and put to death.  Frequently the gaping cavern of a burning hell is depicted as the intended destiny of the devil.  Although some Eastern icons do have St. Michael holding a scale, or sword, and picture him triumphing over the evil one, mostly the Saint is portrayed as holding a staff and/or an orb, representing his messenger and seer roles and his sage, insightful governance.  His face is fair and noble looking, and his entire pose is a peaceful and ethereal one.

Story of St Michael courtesy of the Village of Kington St Michael
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