And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

søndag 29. september 2019

Saint Michael in Segovia, a modern medieval knight

In my previous blogpost I ruminated briefly on the iconography on Saint Michael the Archangel for the occasion of today being Michaelmas, and I had intended to leave it at that this year. But as I was looking through some pictures from earlier this year, I came across another depiction of Saint Michael that I encountered on a late night in Segovia just a few months ago, and this is a picture I really want to share.

Sancte Michael Archangele, defende nos in proelio
Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle
From a medieval prayer to the archangel

I was puzzled by this image, especially as it was posted on the door of a cafe in a way that made it seem that there was no clear relationship between the image and the place in which it was placed, and that this was not a part of the cafe's deliberate decor. In and of itself, the image is perhaps only to be expected in a city like Segovia, where the medieval cityscape is very well preserved, and where medieval iconography is ubiquitous. And to be sure, the image is a variation on the typical medieval representation of the archangel: A sword-wielding knight standing above his vanquished enemy, the satanic dragon. The legend arching across the upper part of the image is the opening of a liturgical chant for the feast of Michael going back to at least the ninth century (as can be seen here). He is carrying a shield that resembles that of Saint George, a common detail in Renaissance imagery, as illustrated by one of Raphael's famous paintings.

Saint Michael and the dragon
Raphael, between 1504 and 1505
Courtesy of Wikimedia

But there is one detail that strikes me as notably modern in this depiction, and which shows to me that this is a case of a modern medievalism used in representing Saint Michael as a symbol of fantasies of medieval knighthood. That detail is his armour, which is a chainmail armour covering most of his body (including his feet, from what it seems to me), partly covered by a tunic that reaches to the knee. This is a very common feature of medieval depictions of knights, including illuminations of Saint George. But it is not a typical feature of medieval depictions of Michael the Archangel. In medieval illuminations, Michael is usually wearing a kirtle or, more typically from the fourteenth century onwards, a full plate armour as in the painting by Raphael.

The monk Gelduin presents his work to Saint Michael 
Avranches - BM - ms. 0050, f.001, c.980-1000 
(Courtesy of

The final battle from BL MS Additional 11695, ff. 147v-148
Beatus of Liébana, Commentary on the Apocalypse, 10th century
(Courtesy of British Library)

Saint Michael battling the dragon 
Cambrai - BM - ms. 0528, f.198v, Homiliary, twelfth century 
(Courtesy of

A minuscule rendering of an epic battle
Cambrai - BM - ms. 0190, f.149, Epistolary, Cambrai, 1266 
(Courtesy of

In short, despite efforts, the Saint Michael I encountered in Segovia is clearly a product of the modern imagination and its imaginings of the medieval period, rather than a product of the medieval period itself, even though the iconography and the liturgical intertextuality clearly draw inspiration from the cult of Saint Michael as it was established in the medieval period. All in all, I will argue that this rendition has more in common with the Spanish comic book hero El Capitán Trueno (Captain Thunder) than with medieval renditions of the archangel.

When I encountered Saint Michael in this guise, I was intrigued as I always am when I see examples of how medieval culture inspires modern imitations. But I was also a bit perturbed, and precisely because I know that modern imitations of medieval culture are often likely to have their genesis in fantasies that champion violent nationalism. In Scandinavia, this is seen in racist appropriations of the Viking past, and in Spain the medieval past and its chivalric trappings can easily be applied to fuel sentiments of anti-Semitism and islamophobia. When seeing the modern rendition of the medieval Saint Michael, one immediate question was: Who is the speaker of the supplication in the legend, what is the battle in question, and against whom is Saint Michael to be expected? I would love to know whether this imagery is more widespread in Spain, and whether it does have the kind of troubling connotations that I fear, or whether it is simply an act of enthusiasm.

lørdag 28. september 2019

Saint Michael in Roskilde

Today, September 29, is the feast of Saint Michael the Archangel. Saint Michael is a popular figure in medieval Christian art, where he is most commonly depicted as the leader of God's army in the fight against the rebel angels. This is often portrayed as the winged Michael in battle with a dragon, and it is a scene that can be found in religious art throughout Christendom. It is likely to have inspired the iconography for several saints who have also become famous for battling dragons. This might especially be the case with Saint George, who is often rendered in a way that makes him appear as more or less a Saint Michael sans wings. This can be explained in part by George typically being depicted as an armed knight, which really emphasises his similarity with the armed general of the heavenly cohorts, Michael. The iconographies of other dragon-battling saints might also have been influenced by Saint Michael, either directly or indirectly through such imitators as Saint George. This is particularly likely in the cases of saints where the dragon has not been an instrumental part of the foundational legend. An example of this can be seen in the case of Saint Olaf of Norway, who is often shown with a dragon or dragon-like figure under his feet. Such a scene is not found Olaf's oldest narratives, and the scene is therefore more likely to have been shaped by other influences. A counterexample are scenes of such famous dragonslayers as Saint Margaret of Antioch, who emerged from the dragon after being swallowed, a scene so iconic that it is unlikely to have been inspired by Saint Michael or any more nondescript dragon slaying stories. The same goes for the legend of Saint Martha fighting the tarasque in Provence, where the iconography of a half-swallowed man's legs protruding from the beast's mouth is unlikely to have any immediate iconographical origin from outside the legend itself. I am, however, not familiar with whether there are any studies of these possible connections.   

For the feast of Michaelmas this year, I'm putting up a picture from a bench end in Roskilde Cathedral. The scene was made around the turn of the fifteenth century. 

Michael battling the dragon
Bench end from Roskilde Cathedral, c.1500

torsdag 26. september 2019

Utopia - a poem by Wisława Szymborska

One of my fascinations is how people imagine their ideal societies, their utopias, and I have a particular soft spot for stories that flesh out a Utopian society in one way or another. The other day I came across a very beautifully formulated description of Utopia that really highlights the gaping chasm that exists between the ideals that humans wish for, and the willingness they have to actually take the necessary steps to achieve those ideals. The text in question is a poem by Wisława Szymborska from her collection People on a bridge, translated by Adam Czerniawski and published by Forest Books.

lørdag 21. september 2019

Saint Matthew in Ethiopia - an extract from the liturgical office for the feast of Saint Matthew

Today is the feast of Saint Matthew the Evangelist. According to his apocryphal acts, which became accepted as historical truth, Matthew was a missionary in Ethiopia. The foundation of this story appears to be an episode in the Acts of the Apostles where there is included a reference to Ethiopian Jews who were converted in Jerusalem during the ministry of the twelve disciples. The legend of Saint Matthew, however, has the apostle travelling to Ethiopia where he fights two pagan sorcerers who keep the kingdom under control with their powers. Matthew's ministry is ultimately successful, but as part of that success he is also martyred to serve as a witness of Christ to the burgeoning Christian community in Ethiopia. (For a brief reflection on the story of his death as represented in the Nuremberg Chronicle, see this blogpost.)

There is no historical foundation to the legend of Matthew in Ethiopia. It is likely that the Ethiopian Jews did indeed encounter Christianity at a very early point, as the Acts of the Apostles record, because Ethiopia, or rather, the Kingdom of Aksum, was part of a wider network of exchange in the first century CE and we are told from the Acts of the Apostles that Jews from many parts of the known world travelled to Jerusalem. Moreover, according to a more likely tradition, the royal family of Aksum accepted Christianity during the ministry of the Syrian missionary Frumentius, and Aksum thus became one of the two first kingdoms to convert to Christianity (the other being Armenia, also in the fourth century).

In the Latin Middle Ages, however, the conversion of Aksum was ascribed to Saint Matthew. And while Matthew's apocryphal acts were written down in a milieu where knowledge of Ethiopia was accessible, it is clear that whatever knowledge was available was also not applied to the legend. This owes in large part to the fantastical element of much of the early legends of the apostles, which partly can be ascribed to the tradition of the Greek novels where such fantastical details and exotic journeys were important elements. For instance, the apocryphal acts of Saint Matthew claims that the Ethiopian capital is called Naddaber, while the king who accepted Christianity was called Eglyppus. In reality, the capital was Aksum, which had given the kingdom its name, and the first Christian king was most likely Ezanas. The original version of the legend is now lost, but the story itself was firmly established in the Latin tradition and was recounted every year during the liturgical office for the feast of September 21.

In the course of my work on liturgical manuscript fragments, I have encountered an extract from the legend of Saint Matthew in a fragment form a Germany breviary, tentatively dated to the fourteenth century. This fragment is found in the special collection of the University of Southern Denmark, where I worked for a short period of time, identifying, transcribing and describing liturgical fragments. In the fragment from RARA Musik M 4, only the first lesson of the office for the feast day has survived, and this part only describes the prelude to Matthew's arrival in Ethiopia. For the feast of Saint Matthew, I will here share my transcription of this lesson, along with a rough translation of its content, and I have here marked the red initials of the original fragment to better highlight the shifts of the text. 

First lesson for the feast of Saint Matthew
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek, RARA Musik M 4
German breviary, probably fourteenth century

Lectio prima:

Erant duo magi zaroes et arfaxat apud ethiopiam in ciuitate eorum magna que dicatur naddaber in qua erat rex eglyppus. Hunc ita [que] ludificabant hi duo magi ut dicerent se deos esse et credebat eis rex et omnis populis memorate urbis. Et ibat opinio eorum per totam ethiopiam ita ut ex longinquis regionibus ethiopie uenirent et adorarent eos. Faciebant enim hominum gressus figi et tam diu inmobiles stare quamdiu ipsi uoluissent. Similiter et uisus hominum et auditus a suo officio refrenabant. Imperabant serpentibus ut percuterent quod et marsi facere solent et ipsi incantando curabant et ut dici uulgo solet malignus maior reuerentia exhibetur timor quam benignus amoris. Curam ergo deus hominum gerens matheum contra hos apostolum misit. Qui ingres[sus]

My translation:
There were two magicians, Zaroes and Arfaxat, among the Ethiopians, in their great city which they call Naddaber in which was King Eglyppus. And so these two magicians sported, and called themselves gods, and the king believed them, and they were called as such by people of the entire city. And the rumour about them advanced through all of Ethiopia, so that from remote regions of Ethiopia they came and paid reverence to them. They made the feet of some persons transfixed and to stand immobile for as long as they themselves wished. Likewise they restrained the use of hearing and seeing in some persons. They ordered serpents so that they would strike and be accustomed to make weak those whom they themselves would cure by enchanting, and so the multitude is accustomed to show wicked fear greater reverence than kind love. Therefore, God sent the apostle Matthew as a cure to these people against those [magicians]. Who entering […]