Raffaello Sanzio, known as Raphael (Urbino, Italy 1483 – Rome, Italy 1520), St. Michael, 1505, oil on wood, 30 cm x 26 cm, Paris, Louvre Museum.
29 September, Feast of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.
The work was mentioned in 1587 in a sonnet by Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo, a Milanese painter and man of letters, who blamed a rich but ignorant fellow citizen who sold to Ascanio Sforza, Count of Piacenza, this small painting together with another, of equal size, representing St. George and the dragon. Both paintings went from Piacenza into the collection of Cardinal Mazzarino and finally into the royal collection of Louis XIV, which today constitutes the most important, notable part of the Louvre Museum.
The attention to every detail in this small painting suggests that it was intended for a refined court as was, for example, that of Guidobaldo from Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino.
First of all, let us read the passage from the Apocalypse in which is narrated what Raphael represented: “And now war broke out in heaven, when Michael with his angels attacked the dragon. The dragon fought back with his angels, but they were defeated and driven out of heaven. The great dragon, the primeval serpent, known as the devil or Satan, who had led all the world astray, was hurled down to the earth and his angels were hurled down with him” (12:7-9).
We are at the height of the fight; Michael has now won the dragon that is under his feet. The atmosphere is still dark, the redness of the background makes us think that we are no longer in heaven, but on earth, in an almost infernal landscape. As a matter of fact, the scene has been enriched with decorative elements that could be inspired by Dante's Inferno (the burning tombs seem to recall the punishment of heretics, the hooded people in procession could be the hypocrites mentioned in Canto XXIII, whereas the children attacked by snakes seem to recall the thieves in Canto XXIV). Not to mention the presence of other fantastic figures linked to the animal world that recall the monsters frequently found in the works of the visionary Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch.
Almost at the centre of the composition, the small shield of the archangel Michael stands out. In addition to its focal position, the object attracts our attention both for its octagonal shape (let's not forget: 8 is the number of the resurrection, which recalls “the day after the Sabbath” – that is the eighth day - and which in medieval times was the number of sides of the baptistery, the place where every creature rose to new life with baptism) and for its beautiful red cross on white background, the only light area in the middle of a painting characterised by dark, gloomy colours.
Contemplating the small painting by Raphael, we make our own the prayer that Pope Francis addressed to St. Michael on July 5, 2013 - a few months after his election - inaugurating a statue dedicated to the Archangel in the Vatican Gardens.
“O glorious Archangel Saint Michael, you who announce to the world the consoling news of the victory of good over evil: open our lives to hope. Watch over this city and the Apostolic See, the heart and centre of Catholicity, so that it may live in fidelity to the Gospel and in the exercise of heroic charity. The Lord of the universe has made you powerful against the forces of the enemy: expose the traps of the Devil and of the spirit of the world. Make us victorious against the temptations of power, wealth and sensuality. Be the bulwark against all machinations that threaten the serenity of the Church; be the sentinel of our thoughts, freeing us from the assault of worldly mentality; be the spiritual guide that sustains us in the good fight of faith.
O glorious Archangel Saint Michael, who always contemplates the face of God, keep us firm on the path to eternity. Amen!”.