Icon of the Archangel Michael

Icon of the Archangel Michael, late 10th–first half of 11th century, silver-gilt, gold cloisonné enamel, stones, pearls (now missing), glass, 44 x 36 cm, likely made in Constantinople (Treasury of the Basilica of San Marco, Venice). Video generously supported by the Byzantine Studies Association of North America, Inc.


Additional resources

Learn more about the Byzantine Studies Association of North America, Inc.

An introduction to icons.

Medieval materiality across the Mediterranean, 900–1500, a Reframing Art History chapter.

High-res images of this work on the Meraviglie di Venezia (Wonders of Venice).

Video of the icon seen in candlelight.

David Buckton, ed. The Treasury of San Marco Venice (Milan: Olivetti, 1984).

David Buckton, “Byzantine Enamel and the West,” in Byzantium and the West 850–1200, edited by J.D. Howard-Johnston (Amsterdam, 1988), pp. 235–44.

Henry Maguire and Robert S. Nelson, San Marco, Byzantium, and the Myths of Venice (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 2010).

Bissera Pentcheva, “The Performative Icon,” The Art Bulletin 88.4 (2006), pp. 631–55.

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Ariel Fein: [0:04] We are standing in the church of San Mateo, in the treasury, and we’re looking at a radiant Byzantine icon of the Archangel Michael. In his left hand, he’s holding a staff, and his right hand is open in a gesture of intercession, suggesting to the worshiper that he can intercede on their behalf with God.

[0:26] On the outer frame, we are looking at gold materials with ornate filigree, and as we move into the center we see this relief figure of the Archangel Michael.

Dr. Brad Hostetler: [0:40] He consists of a variety of materials. The face is executed in repoussé, where the metal is pushed from behind, and then chasing, which would allow for the fine details pushed in from the front.

Dr. Fein: [0:52] His garments are rich in decoration. They are covered in precious stones and enamel, imitating ornate materials.

Dr. Hostetler: [1:04] This enamel work is especially interesting because the two pieces that construct the two wings are some of the largest pieces of Byzantine enamel that survive. The upper portion of the wing curves up. This is one of the only pieces that we know of [in] which enamel was applied to a curved surface.

Dr. Fein: [1:25] We should really be looking at this work as a work of sculpture. It invites touch. It projects into the viewer’s space and invites a reaction from the worshiper’s senses.

Dr. Hostetler: [1:38] This multi-colored surface, this multi-textural surface creates a wondrous surface for the viewer. There’s no one place where your eye fixates. It’s always moving, always dynamic.

Dr. Fein: [1:51] We can imagine that when a worshiper approached this object in a dimly lit church with candles lit before the icon or oil lamps flickering, the changing lights would have radiated across the surface, animating the icon as the figure appeared to come to life.

Dr. Hostetler: [2:12] In Byzantine sources, icons are described as responding to the viewer. This may be the kind of icon that is changing in front of the viewer through various different lighting conditions.

Dr. Fein: [2:23] The use of enamel is an especially appropriate medium for the representation of the Archangel Michael. In Byzantine thought, the angels were both fire and spirit. To use a material like enamel, created through taking crushed powdered glass fired at high temperatures, is a perfect substance to represent this figure who is both fire and spirit.

[2:51] Now, this icon did not originate in Venice. It arrived likely in the years following the tumultuous events of 1204. Western European fighters set out with the hope of capturing Jerusalem, the Holy Land, and surrounding regions from Muslim hands.

[3:13] While the Holy Land was their target, in the Fourth Crusade of 1204, they were diverted to Constantinople, and there the Crusaders laid siege to the city and eventually conquered Constantinople.

Dr. Hostetler: [3:29] During this time, many of the precious objects that were housed in treasuries in Constantinople were looted and taken to the West, and Venice became one of the main repositories for these precious objects.

Dr. Fein: [3:42] In Venice, it was a statement of the conquest of Constantinople.

Dr. Hostetler: [3:47] What we’re looking at today is an icon that has been subjected to different periods of transformation, additions, alterations, and restoration. The small round enamels are Byzantine, but they could have come from another object and added to this when it was in Venice.

[4:05] The thin filigree on the outer frame, this is thought to be Venetian in origin and added at a later time. Even in the 19th century, the object underwent extensive restorations.

Dr. Fein: [4:16] It is truly a masterpiece of Byzantine craftsmanship.

[4:21] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Ariel Fein and Dr. Brad Hostetler, "Icon of the Archangel Michael," in Smarthistory, November 15, 2022, accessed May 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/icon-of-the-archangel-michael/.