What are angels – specifically the Archangel Michael?

Angels. What are they? And what is the difference between an angel and an archangel? And why is the Archangel Michael so important? The whole question of angels is neglected so we’ll put that right here…

First of all, let’s get the ranks of angels out of the way in ascending order from the most important downwards. How this was devised is beyond me. Somebody in a desert cave chewing hallucinogenic plant roots came up with all this – in my view. OK – Seraphim come first…

  • Seraphim – with six wings, these beasts must resemble a mass of feathers – see the representation of them in the Hagia Sophia to understand what I mean – whirling, winged creatures.
  • Cherubim – they have four faces: a lion, fox, human and eagle. Plus four wings. Must be quite a sight!
  • Thrones – these are truly trippy, sometimes depicted as the wheels on a celestial chariot driven by cherubs. I know – you cannot visualise. But I’m not making it up.

A theologian with too much time on his hands came up with all this. Step forward Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and his book on the subject, De Coelesti Hierarchia. Written in the fifth or sixth century and influenced by neo-Platonism, a philosophy popular in the late Roman Empire but only really understood by a small bunch of very intense people.

Beneath the above three senior ranks of angels come a secondary rank: Dominations, Virtues, and Powers. Then the lowest rank which is: Principalities, Archangels, and Angels – who deal directly with us humans down here on earth. So, if you meet an angel, he will have come from the tertiary rank and will not be a Seraphim or Throne, which is frankly a relief. I have no wish to encounter a mass of wings or a wheel with eyes!

Hope you’re following all this! Now, what is the difference between an angel and an archangel? Well, pretty simple really. An angel is a messenger. And an archangel is a chief messenger. It’s all very corporate. If you want, archangels have a key to the executive bathroom but angels do not. One confusing differentiation is that angels were created by God while Archangels were also created by God but simultaneously have “a divine origin”. What does that mean? Do they pre-date God? Are they on an equal footing? Search me!

This is when you begin to sniff some polytheism creeping into Christianity. There is no doubt that archangels replaced certain pagan, militaristic Gods. They are, basically, a polytheistic hangover.

Archangel Michael – the most popular among the angels

The Archangel Michael was hugely popular in the medieval period – not least for vanquishing the Devil. At the time of the Knights Templar, this archangel loomed large. He was a massively powerful intermediary between God and humanity. In England, in the Middle Ages, the Archangel Michael was second only to Saint Peter in popularity in the Templar period. In Wales, he was second only to the Virgin Mary.

This is remarkable considering he is only mentioned about five times in the bible. Three times in the Old Testament in the Book of Daniel while in the New Testament he pops up in Revelation and the Epistle of Jude. So, really not a huge amount to go on. But what there was played heavily in the medieval imagination. The whole idea of the coming apocalypse and this valiant, militaristic angel riding a steed. Heady stuff!

The Archangel Michael appears very often in medieval churches and chapels – always looking a little like a Roman soldier. This has led some to wonder if he was a Hellenistic import into Judaism.

Crushing the rebellion of Satan!

Angels are bizarre beings. Some conspiracy theorists have found them so odd, they’ve wondered if they were extra-terrestrials. I can understand how a notion like that arises. They are ethereal beings that drift between heaven and earth as messengers. Some of them specifically guard children – Guardian Angels. Others guide and advise prophets. In Islam, the Archangel Gabriel is the narrator of God’s will to Muhammad.

For centuries, religious scholars have tried to figure out what exactly is an angel. Are they corporeal or heavenly bodies that take on human form momentarily? Of course all this echoes the same early Christian debates about the nature of Jesus Christ. They also continue stories you find in Greek and Roman mythology about the Gods visiting us in human and animal form.

Angels first arise in the Garden of Eden as cherubim guarding the tree of life. And they are present at the end of the New Testament, in the Book of Revelation, in the final battle against evil. In between they pop up many times, even having a wrestling match on one occasion in the Old Testament. Clement of Alexandria thought they moved the stars and controlled the four elements: air, fire, earth, and water. Angels truly are versatile!

In the story of Sodom and Gomorroah, the two cities destroyed on account of their astonishing levels of evil, angels visit Lot at his home and an aggressive crowd of men gather outside. It’s quite clear that their intention is to sexually abuse the angels – hence the term ‘sodomy’. The angels are so annoyed about this – they blind everybody.

The Archangel Michael is most clearly defined in the Book of Revelation where he crushes a rebellion by evil angels in heaven led by Satan – an angel described by some early theologians as formerly one of God’s favourites who then felt rejected after Christ came on the scene. Anyway, the battle ends with Satan and his followers thrown out of heaven and down into hell. Michael is the general in charge of God’s armies.

Michael heralds the end times – the apocalypse!

In the Qumran community and among early Christians, Michael would play a leading role in the return of Christ, which was thought to be imminent. He would vanquish the devil and herald the kingdom of heaven on earth.

Just before Revelation, there is a very short book in the New Testament called the Epistle of Saint Jude. Nobody knows who wrote this, why, or when. But it includes a story about the Archangel Michael and Satan arguing over the body of Moses. Michael had apparently hidden the body but Satan had found it. The meaning of this tale has been disputed. It’s also asserted elsewhere that Michael guards the body of Eve – the first woman.

The Archangel Michael turns up around Europe and the Middle East in different guises during the medieval period – some examples:

  • In Constantinople he was the heavenly physician and in a church called the Michaelion, the sick would sleep on the floor overnight for a cure – this is a practice rooted in pagan, especially Egyptian rites
  • Egyptian Christians placed the river Nile under the protection of the Archangel Michael
  • In Normandy, he became the patron of mariners
  • In medieval Germany, he replaced the pagan war god Wotan

Gender of Archangel Michael and other angels

I referred to the Archangel Michael as “he” but actually his gender is rather neutral in many depictions. One review of the painter Raphael’s depiction of Michael was “either an overgrown effeminate boy or an Amazon”. Like many angels, Michael is almost sexless.

In the Renaissance, I think one could describe the angels painted by Giotto as non-binary while Duccio has an angel at the tomb of Christ that is undeniably female. Many of the Italian painters of the 16th century used children and especially boys as their models for angels.

Donatello’s depiction of the Annunciation – where Gabriel tells Mary about her forthcoming virgin birth – has an angel that is more feminine than male. And there is a reason for that. Many people down the ages felt uncomfortable with the idea of a man having such a gynaecological conversation with the Mother of God.

Order of Saint Michael – medieval chivalric order

150 years after the crushing of the Knights Templar, the King of France founded a new order of chivalry: the Order of Saint Michael. Unlike the Templars whose only loyalty was to the Pope, the loyalty of the Order of Saint Michael was to the king. And that’s how the monarchs of France liked it. One of their beefs with the Templars was that they could not be trusted. That their allegiance lay elsewhere.

Another 300 years later, George the Prince Regent, founded the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George honouring those who fought for the British Empire.

Medieval street-side shrines to angels and saints

The Archangel Michael features prominently in medieval shrines.

These kinds of shrines pictured below can still be found all over Europe and would once have offered travellers a place to pray while en route. Many have rotted away, made of perishable materials, others would have been destroyed as idolatrous in Protestant Europe while some have survived.

This is a roadside shrine I came across in the town of Ancora in northern Portugal. Behind bars is a painted and carved depiction of sinners amidst flames and above them the triumphant figure of the archangel in what I’m guessing is a vague idea of Roman dress though the cap is curious.

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