Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Saint Michael in Room A

Spinello Aretino (active 1373; died 1410/11)
Saint Michael and Other Angels
about 1373-1410,
Fresco Fragment
Room A, The National Gallery, London

This is one of the fresco fragments of the work by Spinello Aretino. St Michael and the Angels are shown fighting a war in Heaven.

It is in Room A of The National Gallery in London and can only be viewed for a few hours every Wednesday afternoon

A native of Arezzo, Spinello worked all over Tuscany including Florence.

His most celebrated work and probably the most viewed is his series of frescoes on the Life of Saint Benedict in the sacristy of San Miniato in Florence.

One can sit and gaze at the frecoes there for hours. If you did not know anything about St Benedict before you went in, you will after sitting there for thirty minutes

He was buried in the Church of Saint Augustine in Arezzo

The fresco fragments in The National Gallery seem to be from the frescoes mentioned by his fellow Aretine, Vasari in his life of Spinello Aretino

Vasari said the frescoes were painted when Aretino was old and had "retired" back to his native town at the end of his long life:

"Having returned there [Arezzo], then, at the age of seventy-seven or more, he [Spinello Aretino] was received lovingly by his relatives and friends, and was ever afterward cherished and honoured up to the end of his life, which was at the age of ninety- two.

And although he was very old when he returned to Arezzo, and, having ample means, could have done without working, yet, as one who was ever used to working, he knew not how to take repose, and undertook to make for the Company of S. Agnolo in that city certain stories of S. Michael, which he sketched in red on the intonaco of the wall, in that rough fashion wherein the old craftsmen used generally to do it; and in one corner, for a pattern, he wrought and colored completely a single story, which gave satisfaction enough.

Then, having agreed on the price with those who had charge thereof, he finished the whole wall of the high altar, wherein he represented Lucifer fixing his seat in the North; and he made there the Fall of the Angels, who are being transformed into devils and raining down to earth; while in the air is seen a S. Michael, who is doing combat with the ancient serpent of seven heads and ten horns; and below, in the centre, there is a Lucifer, already transformed into a most hideous beast.

And Spinello took so much pleasure in making him horrible and deformed, that it is said (so great, sometimes, is the power of imagination) that the said figure painted by him appeared to him in a dream, asking Spinello where he had seen him so hideous, and why he had offered him such an affront with his brushes; and that he, awaking from his sleep, being unable to cry out by reason of his fear, shook with a mighty trembling, insomuch that his wife, awaking, came to his rescue. But he was none the less thereby in peril his heart being much strained of dying on the spot by reason of such an accident; and although he lived a little afterwards, he was half mad, with staring eyes, and he slipped into the grave, leaving great sorrow ..."

In the fresco we see depicted The War in Heaven mentioned in The Book of Revelation 12: 7 - 9:

"7: And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the Dragon; and the Dragon fought and his angels,
8: And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in Heaven.
9: And the great Dragon was cast out, that old Serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him"

These three verses about Civil War in Heaven and the overcoming by Good of Evil have inspired many. Not least Paradise Lost by John Milton (1608–1674). Here is part of Book VI:

"........Amazement seized
The rebel Thrones, but greater rage, to see
Thus foiled their mightiest; ours joy filled, and shout, 200
Presage of victory, and fierce desire
Of battle: whereat Michaël bid sound
The Archangel trumpet. Through the vast of Heaven
It sounded, and the faithful armies rung
Hosannah to the Highest; nor stood at gaze 205
The adverse legions, nor less hideous joined
The horrid shock. Now storming fury rose,
And clamour such as heard in Heaven till now.
Was never; arms on armour clashing brayed
Horrible discord, and the madding wheels 210
Of brazen chariots raged; dire was the noise
Of conflict; overhead the dismal hiss
Of fiery darts in flaming volleys flew,
And, flying, vaulted either host with fire.
So under fiery cope together rushed 215
Both battles main with ruinous assault
And inextinguishable rage. All Heaven
Resounded; and, had Earth been then, all Earth
Had to her centre shook. What wonder, when
Millions of fierce encountering Angels fought 220
On either side, the least of whom could yield
These elements, and arm him with the force
Of all their regions? How much more of power
Army against army numberless to raise
Dreadful combustion warring, and disturb, 225
Though not destroy, their happy native seat;
Had not the Eternal King Omnipotent
From his strong hold of Heaven high overruled
And limited their might, though numbered such
As each divided legion might have seemed 230
A numerous host, in strength, each armèd hand
A legion! Led in fight, yet leader seemed
Each warrior single as in chief; expert
When to advance, or stand, or turn the sway
Of battle, open when, and when to close 235
The ridges of grim war. No thought of flight,
None of retreat, no unbecoming deed
That argued fear; each on himself relied
As only in his arm the moment lay
Of victory. Deeds of eternal fame 240
Were done, but infinite; for wide was spread
That war, and various: sometimes on firm ground
A standing fight; then, soaring on main wing,
Tormented all the air; all air seemed then
Conflicting fire. Long time in even scale 245
The battle hung; till Satan, who that day
Prodigious power had shown, and met in arms
No equal, ranging through the dire attack
Of fighting Seraphim confused, at length
Saw where the sword of Michael smote, and felled 250
Squadrons at once: with huge two-handed sway
Brandished aloft, the horrid edge came down
Wide-wasting. Such destruction to withstand
He hasted, and opposed the rocky orb
Of tenfold adamant, his ample shield, 255
A vast circumference. At his approach
The great Archangel from his warlike toil
Surceased, and, glad, as hoping here to end
Intestine war in Heaven, the Arch-foe subdued,
Or captive dragged in chains, with hostile frown 260
And visage all inflamed"

Does St Michael have a place outside art or story telling ? Well yes if one can get past the patina of scientific realism which suffuses modern society.

Pope Benedict XVI explained it thus in a homily to Bishops in 2007 on the Memorial of the three Archangels in St Peter's Basilica on Saturday, 29 September 2007:

"First of all there is Michael. We find him in Sacred Scripture above all in the Book of Daniel, in the Letter of the Apostle St Jude Thaddeus and in the Book of Revelation.

Two of this Archangel's roles become obvious in these texts. He defends the cause of God's oneness against the presumption of the dragon, the "ancient serpent", as John calls it.

The serpent's continuous effort is to make men believe that God must disappear so that they themselves may become important; that God impedes our freedom and, therefore, that we must rid ourselves of him.

However, the dragon does not only accuse God. The Book of Revelation also calls it "the accuser of our brethren..., who accuses them day and night before our God" (12: 10).

Those who cast God aside do not make man great but divest him of his dignity. Man then becomes a failed product of evolution. Those who accuse God also accuse man.

Faith in God defends man in all his frailty and short-comings: God's brightness shines on every individual. ...

And what more could one say and think about man than the fact that God himself was made man?

Michael's other role, according to Scripture, is that of protector of the People of God (cf. Dn 10: 21; 12: 1).

Dear friends, be true "guardian angels" of the Church which will be entrusted to you!

Help the People of God whom you must lead in its pilgrimage to find the joy of faith and to learn to discern the spirits: to accept good and reject evil, to remain and increasingly to become, by virtue of the hope of faith, people who love in communion with God-Love."