Friday, September 29, 2017

The Three Great Archangels

Master of Pratovecchio, The Three Archangels
Italian, c. 1450
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

September 29th was once known as Michaelmas, the feast of Saint Michael the Archangel.  Then, in 1969 when the revised list of feast days was released it became the Feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, Archangels.  This is a wise reminder that Michael is not the only archangel whose name we know from the Bible.  There are two others whose activity on God's behalf within the mortal world has been worthy of notice and remembrance.

The names of the Archangels suggest the sphere of activity in which they take part.



The name Michael is, as I pointed out in my essay on his iconography (here), both a question and a challenge.  It translates as "Who is like God?"  For this reason, Michael is often shown as a warrior, as the general who leads the angelic hosts in war against the evil angels who fell into rebellion with Lucifer and became the demons who serve Lucifer/Satan in his vendetta against God through the medium of human activity.

Jean Bourdichon, Saint Michael the Archangel
From the Grandes heures d'Anne de Bretagne
French (Tours), c.1503-1508
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9474, fol. 163v

Michael is often depicted wearing armor and holding either a sword or lance, which he wields in defeating Satan, who is often depicted as a serpent or a demon.  Michael also is the just judge who weighs the good and bad deeds of each individual upon their death.

The fate of each soul rests in the balance scales in Michael's hands.  Too few good deeds will doom the soul to torment, while abundant good deeds open the door to heaven.  An ambiguous result leads to temporary punishment in Purgatory.


Gabriel is the most familiar of the three great Archangels.  His name means "God is my strength".  He is the consummate messenger, the great ambassador, conveying God's intentions to human beings, and bringing with the announcement the strength that assists that person to fulfill God's intention.  It is he who announces to Mary that she has been chosen to be the mother of God's Son.  He is also the one who previously announced the birth of John the Baptist to John's father, Zachariah.  He is also believed to be the same as the unidentified angel who announces the birth of Christ to the shepherds of Bethlehem and the one who comes to comfort and strengthen Jesus during His agony in the garden the night before His crucifixion.
Jean Bourdichon, Saint Gabriel the Archangel
From Grandes heures d'Anne de Bretagne
French (Tours), c. 1503-1508
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9474, fol. 167v
He is usually shown in action, especially as one half of an image of the Annunciation (as here, for instance).  If shown on his own he will usually bear some reference to that supreme moment, a lily, perhaps, or a scroll bearing the words of his greeting to Mary "Hail, full of grace!"


Raphael is the least well-known of the three Archangels of today's feast.  His name means "God has healed" and he is associated with works of corporal mercy.  Most importantly he is remembered as the angel who, in the guise of a young man, accompanies young Tobias on his journey to collect money owed to his blind father, Tobit.  It is through Raphael's advice that Tobias successfully makes the journey, gaining a wife (whom he frees from the interference of a demon by following Raphael's advice), and curing his father of his blindness on his return (also by following the angel's advice).

Jean Bourdichon, Saint Raphael the Archangel
From the Grandes heures d'Anne de Bretagne
French (Tours), c. 1503-1508
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9474, fol. 165

His iconography usually includes the figure of Tobias and his dog and, also usually, the fish.  He may carry jars of ointment or even a full medical kit, with a pilgrim staff or a sword used to protect his charge from harm.

Group Portraits

While images of the three Archangels involved in the tasks that they have been assigned are very frequent in the history of art, images of the Archangels as portraits are rarer.  Rarer still are images in which two or more of them are shown together as a group.  I have assembled a group of these images here to celebrate the feast day of the three great Archangels:  Michael, Gabriel and Raphael.1
Fastolf Master, Three Archangels
From the Hours of William Porter
French (Rouen), c. 1420-1425
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M105, fol. 22va
Archangels Michael and Raphael
From a Book of Hours
Flemish (Ghent), c. 1420-1430
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M439, fol. 19va

Jacobello del Fiore, Justice Between Archangels Michael and Gabriel
Itaian, 1421
Venice, Gallerie dell'Accademia

Francesco Botticini, The Three Archangels with Tobias
Italian, c. 1470
Florence, Gallerie degli Uffizi
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Madonna and Child Enthroned with Archangels Michael and Gabriel, Saints and Angels
Italian, c. 1483
Florence, Gallerie degli Uffizi
Marco d'Oggiono, The Three Archangels
Italian, c. 1500
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera

 © M. Duffy, 2017


  1. Pope, Hugh. "Angels." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 29 Sept. 2017.

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