BORROWED ANGEL: A BULGARIAN FRESCO

The Rila Monastery is the most noted monastic center in Bulgaria.  It burned in 1833, but was then rebuilt between 1834 and 1862.  Its delightfully colorful frescos were completed in 1846.

Here is an interesting example: The inscription (you should be able to read the first three words if you have been following this blog) says, “Holy Archangel Michael Torments the Soul of the Rich Man.” On the image the spelling varies slightly, but we can read it as  С. Архангел Михаил мучит душу богатого — Svyatuiy Arkhangel Mikhail muchit dushu bogatogo.

Michael looks rather glorious in his flowing pastel garments.  But that he is in this scene at all is a bit odd, and it becomes even stranger when we take a look at an earlier painting (c. 1630s) by the Italian Catholic artist Guido Reni:

The main image of Michael in the Bulgarian fresco is obviously ultimately  derived from the earlier image by Reni.  Michael has been given some slight “Orthodox” touches and is simplified in painting technique, but it is the same form overall.

The Reni painting is loosely based on Revelation 12: 7-9 etc.:

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, who deceives the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.”

But in the Rila fresco, the fallen Satan and the Revelation reference is gone, and in their place is the dying Rich Man of the parable in Luke 12: 16:

And he [Jesus]  spoke a parable to them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully:

17 And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room in which to bestow my fruits?

18 And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods.

19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have much goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry.

20 But God said to him, You fool, this night your soul shall be required of you: then whose shall those things be, which you have provided?

21 So is he that lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

Where in Reni’s painting, Michael holds chains in his right hand, in the Rila fresco they are replaced by the little soul of the Rich Man, a half-naked figure clothed only in a loincloth. Michael holds the little soul by its hair.  And though Reni’s Michael has bare legs, the Rila example gives him rosy leggings, called ноговицы — nogovitsui in Russia.

And of course the entire background is different:  gone are the rocks and flames of the Reni painting, replaced by buildings and the Rich Man’s mourners and demons, one of whom holds a bag of money in one hand and a little scroll in the other, with the text “You are mine, O covetous one.”

An engraving mixing the Reni image of Michael with elements found in the Rila fresco was published in Venice in 1811.  Such engravings were a common means by which Western European religious art was transmitted to the Orthodox countries of the East, to Russia, the Balkans, and Greece.

There were also engravings of the subject from Mt. Athos as early as 1807, with an inscription linking the image to the parable of the Rich Man.  One such copper engraving, from 1858, was printed at the Monastery of Simonopetra on Mt. Athos in Greece:

The title  inscription is in Greek and Slavic.  The Greek reads much as the Slavic:

Ὁ ΑΡΧΑΓΓΕΛΟΣ ΜΙΧΑΗΛ ΠΕΔΕΥΕΙ ΤΗΝ ΨΥΧΗΝ ΤΟΥ ΠΛΟΥΣΙΟΥ
HO ARKHANGELOS MIKHAEL PEDEUEI TEN PSYKHEN TOU PLOUSIOU
“The Archangel Michael Chastises the Soul of the Rich Man.”

Now you might think this borrowing of Western European Roman Catholic and Protestant religious imagery into Eastern Orthodox iconography might be very rare, if you are one of those with the delusion of a “pure” Eastern orthodox art.  But it was not.  In Russia and other “Orthodox” countries, and even on Mt. Athos, Western European designs were sometimes used as patterns for icons and frescos.

But now to the matter of how the Archangel Michael, who is not mentioned in the parable of the Rich Man as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, happened to end up in icons and frescos of that parable.

In Orthodox iconography, Michael came to be not only the leader of the heavenly armies, but also the one weighing souls at the Last Judgment, holding the scales that balance a man’s good deeds against the bad.  This latter concept was extended to the “weighing” of the deeds of a man at death, when the soul left the body.  So while in some iconography from the 16th to 19th century, Michael is shown in his armor and with his sword as he stands on the body of the dead man and “weighs” his deeds to determine the fate of the soul, this image also became transferred, in the early 19th century, to images based on the parable of the Rich Man, and that is the version we see in the Rila fresco, though in the Rila example the scales of the earlier form are gone.

In any case, images of Michael either standing on a “generic” dead figure or on the more specific body of the Rich Man were sometimes used on side doors of the iconostasis, primarily in the Balkans.

The theme also relates to Russian icons depicting the “Righteous Man and the Sinful Man,” showing the life and fate at death of a pious man as compared to that of his sinful counterpart.  The “death” portion is depicted in this Russian lubok, circa 1800.  At left is the death of the “Rightous Man.”  At right is the death of the “Sinful Man,” which one may compare with the type of The Archangel Michael tormenting the Rich Man.

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