After St. George, what could be more logical a saint to write about than St. Michael? I have been collecting material on this remarkable figure and I want to write at least something about him this summer – even if the conference I wanted to present at rejected my paper proposal (sad face). This post is an attempt at putting some thoughts in order…
St. Michael was one of the most popular saints in medieval Europe, in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy. This is rather odd, because Michael is not a saint at all, but an angel. Saints were human once, and performed some noted service to Christianity; the most prestigious ones were martyred for their faith. Saints are in heaven with God, and in the Middle Ages acquired the function of intercession: you could pray to them, and they would be deputized with answering; they might specialize in providing a particular type of miracle, and amass a particular set of devotees.
Angels are different. In both the Old and New Testaments, angels function as messengers of God. Gabriel, Uriel and Michael are the three best-known. They had never enjoyed a human existence, but were always semi-divine members of the court of heaven. As such, one would think that they would enjoy a Christian cult like that of the most powerful saints, but only Michael seems to have. (One would think that Old Testament prophets like Moses, Elijah, or Isaiah could be Christianized in this way as well, but one generally does not find churches dedicated to them, prayers addressed to them, or accounts of their lives included in saints legendaries.)
Why St. Michael should have enjoyed church and guild dedications, heard Christian prayers, had his own feast day (Michaelmas, September 29), been included in the Golden Legend, etc., is a mystery I’d like to explore more. Gabriel, despite his appearance to the Virgin Mary herself, was nowhere near as popular. The only thing I can think of right now is artistic: St. Michael was often shown battling the devil, as he does in Revelation. I’m convinced that one of the main reasons why St. George was so popular was simply because he was shown fighting the dragon; people loved the action. In England, George and Michael were sometimes paired, each one overcoming his scaly enemy.
This leads to a very important aspect of St. Michael’s patronage: he was a warrior saint. He protected and encouraged “those who fight,” as they fought. This was not entirely a Christian thing to do, but once the Church endorsed crusading (Holy War to liberate Jerusalem from the infidel), it was only natural that different saints should be accepted as specialists in warfare – whether practiced on crusade or not. Once the English managed to monopolize St. George in the context of the Hundred Years’ War (following the Battle of Crécy in 1346), the French turned increasingly to St. Michael. Colette Beaune talks about this in her Naissance de la nation France; the Norman monastery of Mont-St-Michel played a role, as did the foundation of the French Order of St. Michael in 1469.
Depictions of St. Michael followed suit. Normally, he was shown as an angel, dressed in dalmatic. As the Middle Ages wore on, however, he acquired more and more pieces of military equipment, such as helmet, breastplate, greaves, and shield. And on the shield – a coat of arms.
What these coats of arms were will be the subject of another post.