Archangel Michael

Byzantine (Early Medieval Period)

replica: from the British Museum, London

date of the original: 6th century AD

provenance of the original: now in the British Museum, London

description: One half of a diptych of which the other half is now lost. Draped figure of an archangel standing with orb in right hand, staff in left. Greek inscription reads lexou paronta kai mathon tenaitian. Resin replica; ivory original. Height 39.5 cm, width 13.5 cm, depth 1.5 cm.

This panel is one-half of a diptych, a hinged two-leaved tablet. The marks of three holes on the left border indicate the points at which the two panels were connected. This diptych was a book cover, whose illustration reflects the waning influence of Classicism giving way to the stylized medieval sensibility. In the Age of Justinian, roughly coinciding with the sixth century AD, ivory carvings were in vogue. They were inspired by Classical models but were adapted to Christian scenes.

The Archangel or Saint Michael who appears on this panel is probably a literal copy (with regard to its details) of a much more ancient figure (perhaps the goddess of victory, Nike (see: Nike Loosening Her Sandal), from whom the Christian angel is derived) that the carver had before his eyes. Although the precision of the Archangel, his classical robes and the architectural elements framing the figure embody some of the realism of antiquity, there is an obvious lack of perspective--the angel seems to hover over the staircase, barely touching the stairs. Painstaking Classical realism has clearly been abandoned in favour of added emphasis on symbolism. The unworldly pose of the figure is characteristically Byzantine.

The inscription, which must have been completed on the lost panel, translates, “Receive these gifts, and having learned the cause...”