This wooden statue with elongated proportions is a typical representative of the art of the northern French-Netherlandish border region. The carving of the draperies and the construction of the figure are rather bold; in contrast to Netherlandish sculptors, here the master does not lose himself in minute details. The most direct analogies are three angels preserved in the museum of Lille. It is likely that the Budapest statue once belonged to an altar. St Michael appears here as the vanquisher of the evil one; in medieval iconography he also appears in Last Judgement compositions as the weigher of the souls.
This oak statue depicts the Archangel Saint Michael. He tramples on a demon, represented as a hybrid creature with a serpent's tail. The archangel is barefoot and dressed in liturgical vestments: he wears an amice around his neck, under an alb, belted at the waist by a cord. Over it, he wears a fringed stole and a cope, held in place by a clasp in the form of a diptych. Two holes on the back of the sculpture indicate that he had wings, which are now lost. The attributes he held in his hand are also missing; there remains, in his left hand, only a fragment of wood in the shape of a handle. We can imagine that he held a scale in this hand, and in the other, a spear, perhaps to strike the demon, or maybe a cross, depending on the iconographic context.
Michael is a warrior saint: he is the leader of the angels’ army and the guardian of paradise, from which he expels Adam and Eve in Genesis. He is also a psychopomp and psychostasis saint, that is to say, he leads souls and presides over their judgment, to distribute them between paradise and hell. In Christian iconography, he appears mainly in an eschatological context, that is, at the end of time: either slaying the devil, or presiding over the Last Judgment.
Michael’s fight against the devil is described in the Apocalypse of Saint John, the last book of the New Testament: it announces a great battle at the end of time between the celestial militia of angels, led by the Archangel Michael, and the fallen angels led by Lucifer (also called Satan or the devil). This fight, won by the angels of God, is an allegory of the definitive victory of good over evil; for Christians, it is the promise of the coming of the kingdom of God.
The end of time, according to the Bible, is also the moment of the Judgment of Souls; in medieval iconography, Saint Michael holds the balance of the weighing of souls and thwarts the attempts of the demon to weigh it down towards hell. Here, he is not represented as a warrior, but barefoot, smiling and dressed as a cleric. Despite the movement of the drapery around the right knee, bent as if to walk, the statue has a very static aspect: this strange contrast gives the angel a graceful and airy, supernatural attitude. The proximity of this sculpture to the Flemish paintings of the years between 1440 and 1490 depicting the Last Judgment suggests that Saint Michael is represented here as the weigher of souls.
Since the High Middle Ages, Michael is a very popular saint throughout Europe, especially in Italy, in the Germanic lands and the Anglo-Saxon world. His worship is concentrated around two major sanctuaries: Mount Gargano, in Italy, from the fifth century, and Mont-Saint-Michel, in Normandy, whose foundation is taken to date back to the beginning of the eighth century. At the end of the Middle Ages, he appears in the centre of spectacular altarpieces of the Last Judgment, particularly in Flanders. This sculpture shares many iconographic and stylistic features with Van der Weyden’s angels, such as that of the Dream of Pope Sergius, painted at the end of the 1430s and housed in the Getty Center, or the Archangel of the Polyptych of Beaune, made between 1443 and 1452 for Chancellor Rolin. They share the same youthful and slender canon, with an oval face framed by long curly hair, and the same system of very graphic, deep, broken pleats at the sleeves, around the waistband and at the bottom of the garment. They all wear the characteristic liturgical outfit of the deacon, which corresponds to the first level of consecration in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, of rank immediately below the priesthood. The cope is a liturgical garment worn on solemn occasions, outside Mass, which perhaps explains the choice of this garment in representations of the Last Judgment. This iconographic type, popularized by Van der Weyden, was taken up in many paintings of the second half of the fifteenth century, by Colijn de Coter, for example.
The sculpted examples closest to the Budapest Archangel are two groups made in the North of France and kept at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille, France: two limestone angels from the 1460s and, even closer, three oak angels bearing the instruments of the Passion, around 1470 (see Hervé Oursel, Sculptures romanes et et gothiques du Nord de la France, exh. cat. Lille: Musée des Beaux-Arts, 1978, 146–47, no. 74), which present the same serene and youthful aspect, displaying a smile deriving from the famous “smile of Reims” of which the angel of the cathedral of Reims, around 1240, offers one of the most famous examples. These analogies invite us to situate our sculpture in the art of the border between France and the former Netherlands, in the region of Lille, around the third quarter of the fifteenth century.
Balogh, Jolán, Katalog der ausländischen Bildwerke des Museums der bildenden Künste in Budapest, IV – XVIII. Jahrhundert: 1. Textband Bd. 1, Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, 1975, p. 195-196., no. 271.
This record is subject to revision due to ongoing research.
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