Today I would like to talk a bit about the icon of the Archangel Michael (Архангел Михаил –“Arkhangel Mikhail” ) as the angel of the Apocalypse. This type, which varies somewhat from example to example in title, in the number and arrangement of elements, and in inscriptions and their variations, is a mixture of images from the Apocalypse (Book of Revelation) and tradition concerning Michael.
Let’s take a look at an example:
The Church Slavic title at the top reads:
ГРОЗННЫЙ ШТРАШНЫЙ СИЛНЫЙ НЕБЕСНАГО ЦАРЯ ВОЕВОДА АРХИСТРАТИГ МИХАИЛЪ
Groznuiy Strashnuiy Silnuiy Nebesnago Tsarya Voedvoda Arkhistratig Mikhail
“TERRIBLE, DREADFUL, POWERFUL WARLORD OF THE HEAVENLY TSAR CHIEF-COMMANDER MICHAEL”
Michael is called in Greek the arkhistrategos (αρχιστρατηγός) — the “chief commander” of the armies of heaven. This title, or a Russianized variant, is sometimes written in Cyrillic letters on Russian icons, but one may also find Michael called by the Slavic equivalent, Voevoda (Воевода), meaning “warlord.” This example includes both titles.
The main elements are the Archangel Michael, usually red-faced, winged and crowned, riding across the skies on a winged red horse. Don’t ask why a winged angel also needs a winged horse; as in fairy tales, it is just the way it is.
A rainbow is over his head. A trumpet extends from his mouth. In one hand he holds a lance with which he strikes at the Devil (omitted in some examples), who has fallen below into an abyss in which we see the towers of a city overwhelmed by a great flood. In the same hand is a cross (omitted in some examples), and a censer swinging on a chain. In his other hand he holds the Gospels.
At upper left, on clouds, is an altar table with Jesus as Emmanuel behind it ( or the mature Jesus in some icons). On the altar is a cross, the book of the Gospels, and in some examples (not this one) a chalice.
What does it all mean?
The key lies in the last book of the Bible, the Apocalypse, which Protestants call the Book of Revelation. In chapter 12 we find:
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.
So we know that this is an icon relating to the tales of the “end of the world” found in the Apocalypse. That is why, in the upper left hand, we find the altar, which is also called the “throne.” This image of the altar in the clouds is called in Greek the Hetimasia, in full, the “Preparation of the Throne.” What is it prepared for? The answer is judgment, the Last Judgment, the “Dreadful Judgment” as it is called in Eastern Orthodoxy.
Now let’s consider Michael himself. Why is his face red? Well, we have seen in previous articles that a red face in general indicates the presence of the fire of divinity. There is an icon of Mary with a red face, and there is also an icon of Jesus as “Holy Wisdom,” depicted as an angel with a red face. In Michael’s case, his red face is explained by the letters above his head in this example:
In a modern Russian font they are:
С Д И С О П
They are obviously some kind of abbreviation, as we can tell from the little curved line of abbreviation found above each of the letters. And what they abbreviate is part of Hebrews 1:7:
(ТВОРЯИ АНГГЛЫ) СВОЯ ДУХИ И СЛУГИ СВОЯ ОГНЬ ПАЛЯЩЬ
Tvoryai angelui svoya dukhi i slugi svoya ogn’ palyashch’
“Who makes his angels spirits and his servants a flame of fire”
So Michael, as an angel serving God, is a fiery being. We have already seen this angels = fire equivalency in an icon type discussed earlier, the Angels of the Elements in the “Unburnt Thornbush” icon of Mary, which also has the same inscription from Hebrews 1:7.
What of the rainbow? It is taken from Revelation 10:1:
“And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire.”
Why is a trumpet extending from Michael’s mouth? Well, there a several mentions in the apocalypse involving angels and trumpets. The iconography of this type adapts such images rather loosely.
ОТ ТРУБЫ ИЗЫДЕ ГЛАС ОБРАЗУЕ ПРИШЕСТВИЕ ВТОРОЕ ГОСПОДА НА ЗЕМЛЮ ГРОМУ И МОЛНИЮ
“From the trumpet came forth a voice signifying the second coming of the Lord — on earth thunder and lightning”
And what about the swinging censer? Its inscription is:
ИЗЫДЕ ОТ КАДИЛА БЛАГОУХАНИЕ ПО ВСЕ ВСЕЛЕНИЕ
“From the censer came forth a fragrance upon the whole world.
It alludes loosely to Revelation, chapter 8:
1. And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.
2 And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets.
3 And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne.
4 And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand.
5 And the angel took the censer, and filled it with fire of the altar, and cast it into the earth: and there were voices, and thunderings, and lightnings, and an earthquake.
And by the Gospel Book is this:
ИЗЫДЕ СЛОВО БОЖИЕ ВО ВСЕЮ ВСЕЛЕНИУЮ
“The Word of God came forth into all the world [cosmos].”
That is a loose allusion to Revelation 14:6:
6 And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people,
7 Saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters.
Looking at the Hetimasia in the upper left corner again, its inscription from Hebrews 1:8 is:
ПРЕСТОЛЪ ТВОИ БОЖЕ ВЪ ВЕКЪ ВЕКА
Prestol’ tvoi bozhe v’ vek’ veka
Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever.
That comes from Hebrews 1:8:
Къ Сыну же: престолъ Твой Боже, въ вѣкъ вѣка: жезлъ правости, жезлъ Царствія Твоего.
“But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of thy kingdom.”
By the abyss is this, from Psalm 9:6 (9:9 Slavic version- we see a variation on it at the base of the first icon shown above):
ВРАГУ ОСКУДЕША И ОРУЖИЕ ВКОНЕЦИ ГРАДЫ РАЗРУШИЛ ЕСИ ПОГИБЕ ПАМЯТЬ ЕГО С ШУМОМ
The swords of the enemy have failed utterly; and thou hast destroyed cities: their memorial has been destroyed with a noise.
The abyss in this icon type is filled with water (but not always). The city towers within it reflect two events: the Old Testament destruction by fire of Sodom and Gomorrah, in which Michael, according to Eastern Orthodox tradition, was the chief commander, and also the destruction of Babylon in the Apocalypse, described in Revelation 18:21:
And a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone, and cast it into the sea, saying, Thus with violence shall that great city Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all.
In this type we cannot expect precise correspondences between the imagery and biblical texts. Iconographers borrowed them quite loosely, and the mixing of these images has somewhat the surreal quality and lack of logic that one finds in dreams.
That, essentially, is what the icon of the Archangel Michael as heavenly warlord is: a kind of irrational, apocalyptic dream of destruction and the end of the world.
Finally, here is the type at its most basic.
The painter has used no inscriptions other than the title, which in this example is:
ОБРАЗ МИХАИЛА АРХАНГЕЛА — OBRAZ MIKHAILA ARKHANGELA –“IMAGE OF THE ARCHANGEL MICHAEL,” and over Christ the standard IC XC abbreviation for “Jesus Christ.”
So, keeping in mind that individual examples have their own peculiarities, that is the general nature of the icon type of Michael as chief commander of the heavenly armies, or as I like to call it, “Terrible Michael and his Flying Red Horse.”