Michael and all the Angels

The feast of Michaelmas on 29 September celebrates St Michael the Archangel. It marks the angel’s defeat of Lucifer and the beginning and end of the farmer’s year, when harvest is over. It also lends its name to the first academic term of the year at many universities, including Cambridge. Our parish is known as St Mary the Great and St Michael, as the two parishes were combined in 1908.

Michael was a powerful figure in the medieval imagination – a warrior angel who had led God’s armies in the war in heaven and cast out Lucifer:

St Michael in the window of GSM's St Andrew's Chapel

St Michael in the window of GSM’s St Andrew’s Chapel

“And there was war in heavenMichael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.”

– King James Bible, Revelations 12:7-9


Like St George, Michael became a patron saint of chivalry and was often depicted killing a dragon, as he does in this roof boss in Great St Mary’s.

St Michael slaying a dragon on the roof boss of Great St Mary's

St Michael slaying a dragon on the roof boss of Great St Mary’s

Michael also became identified with the angel with a flaming sword who is stationed at the gates of the Garden of Eden to keep Adam and Eve from returning.

This role as the guardian of paradise is represented in the East Window of the Michaelhouse Centre, just up the road from Great St Mary’s.

The east window in the Michaelhouse Centre features St Michael

The east window in the Michaelhouse Centre features St Michael

Cambridge’s John Milton made Michael a crucial character in his epic poem, Paradise Lost; the angel leads the charge against Satan and offers words of comfort to Adam and Eve on their banishment. Now privy to all the secrets of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the first humans must live virtuous lives in order to attain a paradise within themselves:

Paradise Lost Michael Quote

As guardian of Paradise, it is natural that medieval devotional practice began to associate Michael with the Last Judgement – as he had followed God’s orders and expelled the first humans from Paradise, so he weighed souls on Judgement Day to determine who would enter Heaven.

This beautiful fifteenth-century wall painting of Michael in the Church of St James the Great, South Leigh, shows him with feathered limbs and golden wings, standing alongside the Virgin Mary.

Mary was often represented interceding with God to beg for mercy for the souls weighed in judgement, and this painting shows that the association of St Mary the Great and St Michael long predates the twentieth-century amalgamation that gave our parish its name.

St Michael, accompanied by the Virgin, weighing souls at Judgement Day. Heavily restored wall painting (probably 15th century) in the Church of St James the Great, South Leigh, Oxfordshire.
St Michael, accompanied by the Virgin, weighing souls at Judgement Day. Heavily restored wall painting (probably 15th century) in the Church of St James the Great, South Leigh, Oxfordshire. Image from paintedchurch.org


Great St Mary’s has some exciting heritage education volunteering opportunities on offer.

Please click on the links below to read more about each role. To apply, fill out the short volunteer application form and send it to Rosie at heritage@gsm.cam.ac.uk 

Do you have a passion for history and experience of undertaking original research? If you have around 10 hours a week to spare over the next couple of months, you might like to become one of our volunteer researchers, digging into the past and discovering the most intriguing treasures that will inspire visitors to Great St Mary’s.

Click here for more information about research topics up for grabs, from Roman Cambridge to Reformation iconoclasm.

Are you an expert organiser who could co-ordinate a team of over 30 volunteers? This crucial role would suit someone with administrative and management experience, who will be able to volunteer from home for up to 12 hours a week. You will make sure the volunteer team feels valued, supported and well-trained, as well as looking after the rota system.

The exciting interactive displays which we are currently designing for GSM will involve hundreds of images. We are looking for someone with a good eye, excellent administrative and IT skills and an interest in heritage to take charge of managing the image database.

Volunteering for 8 hours per week from a home computer, you will seek out suitable images, liaise with the owners in libraries, museums and galleries and ensure that we have the relevant permissions to reuse images from illuminated manuscripts, engravings and paintings.

All these volunteering roles would be great experience for anyone interested in heritage education or local history – please get in touch with Rosie if you have any questions!

Later in the project we will have more volunteering roles on offer, including public-facing roles such as giving tours, helping with educational sessions and leading art and craft activities. Please send us an email if this sort of role would appeal to you, and we can put you on the mailing list for the future.

Walking in the air

The old parish office continues to look a little under the weather, with wheelbarrows full of debris being dug out by our tireless builders. The first floor offices are propped up in temporarily while they wait to be removed completely, and the old stairs to the right have already been ripped out.





As for the other staircase:



No-one has been tempted to defy the sign and risk peeling the whole thing off the wall.

Guess who?

Great St Mary’s has some beautiful windows in the clerestory, showing patriarchs, apostles, prophets and martyrs. These were installed in 1902-04 by James Powell, to designs by William Cunningham.

Normally it is very hard to see the detail of these windows, even from the galleries. I have taken advantage of the nave being full of scaffolding to get some close-ups of the beautiful, jewel-like glass. Like medieval stained glass windows, these images use symbols, costume and accessories to allude to the stories and attributes of Biblical characters and saints, so that even the illiterate could learn to recognise them.

Can you guess who is represented in each of these windows from the details below?

IMG_1400 small IMG_1387 small IMG_1396 small IMG_1389 small

The seven stars and Orion

View from south gallery into the new offices

View from south gallery into the new offices

This window into the new offices above the vestry quotes Amos 5:8:

Seek him that makes the seven stars and Orion, and turns the shadow of death into the morning, and makes the day dark with night: that calls for the waters of the Sea, and pours them out upon the face of the earth: the Lord is his Name.

The clerestory windows show Amos in the humble clothing of a herdsman with ears of corn at his feet, referring to his prophecy about the house of Israel in Amos 9:9:

…I will sift the house of Israel among all nations,
like as corn is sifted in a sieve,
yet shall not the least grain fall upon the earth.

The feet of Amos from GSM's clerestory windows

The feet of Amos from GSM’s clerestory windows

This is a beautiful rendition of Jonathan Dove’s choral setting of Amos 5:8 and Psalm 139, ‘Seek Him That Maketh the Seven Stars,’ performed by the Choir of Salisbury Cathedral:

Ely connections

Prior of Ely

This lovely roundel in GSM’s south aisle commemorates the generosity of Roger Westminster, Prior of Ely.

If you have a free afternoon, Ely cathedral is always worth a visit, and you can see the stunning romanesque Prior’s Door there. Dating from c.1135, this portal connected the cathedral to the medieval cloister.

Ely Cathedral Prior's Door, photo by Holly Hayes, www.gohistoric.com

Ely Cathedral Prior’s Door, photo by Holly Hayes, www.gohistoric.com

In the tympanum above the door’s lintel, Christ is enthroned in an almond-shaped mandorla, flanked by angels, with his right hand raised in blessing. In his left hand, he holds the Book with the Seven Seals, the record of good and evil deeds.

“Hideous deformity”

Great St Mary’s has always had to balance its role as a parish church and university space for preaching and debate. For a long time, there was a ‘Doctor’s Gallery’ which meant that some university staff sat on a raised gallery at the east end of the nave, with their backs to the altar. This was not universally popular, as you can see from this 1860 pamphlet written by Henry Luard, vicar of Great St Mary’s, debating the layout of the church:

“…though it requires only care in the management of the voice for the clergyman to make himself heard from the Communion Table, it yet would be very trying for a person of weak lungs ; and the sight presented to one officiating there of the back of the Doctors’ gallery in all its hideous deformity, while he catches faint glimpses of the congregation through the arches, is as dismal and disheartening as can well be imagined.

We have heard of some persons objecting to rood-screens, as in a slight extent depriving the congregation of a full view of the chancel and the services performed there ; what then must we not think of the whole being blocked up by a gallery, which, as far as the congregation is concerned, is absolutely useless, and which must convey to a careless observer the ideas of selfishness and luxury?”

– Remarks on the present condition and proposed restoration of the church of Great St. Mary’s, H.R. Luard, 1860

This was a hot topic at the time, and the “hideous deformity” that was the Doctors’ Gallery had its supporters, including William Whewell, Master of Trinity. Commenting on those who thought it was disrespectful for the academics to turn their backs on the altar, Whewell scornfully commented:

“the notion that their looking westwards  rather than eastwards involves any irreverence, appears to me not only fanciful and puerile, but superstitious”

– On the proposed alterations in Great St Mary’s Church , W. Whewell, 1860

Learning to read

To celebrate international literacy day, which is coming up on Sunday 8 September and coincides with the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin, here is a collection of images of the Virgin Mary being taught to read by her mother, St Anne.

This was a popular subject for English devotional art, particularly in the fourteenth century. It might well have been represented in Great St Mary’s, given that the Church was dedicated to the Virgin.

  • This East Anglian altar frontal dates from c.1330-1350 and the Education of the Virgin panel has an unusual composition, with Mary’s back to her mother. The two figures here would probably have been echoed by an Annunciation scene at the left-hand side of the altar frontal, which has been lost.
  • This wall painting from the Church of Corby Glen, in Lincolnshire, dates from c.1325 and shows a larger-scale treatment of the same subject – the figure of Mary seems to be reading from a hornbook with her mother’s supportive arm wrapped around her left shoulder.
  • A rare and stunning children’s book, the Primer of Claude of France, survives in the Fitzwilliam Museum. Anne of Brittany (1476-1514) commissioned the manuscript for her daughter Claude (1499-1524) to help her learn to read – the book begins with an alphabet and the Lord’s Prayer. Claude was daughter of King Louis XII of France and heiress to the Duchy of Brittany. She later married her second cousin Francis, who became King Francis I of France.

On this page St Claudius of Besançon, Claude’s patron saint, presents the little girl to the Virgin and St Anne. Claude looks on as St Anne oversees her daughter’s reading lesson but the Virgin seems distracted from her book, as she turns towards Claude and reaches out a hand to her.

Text von Geoffrey Tory geschrieben; von Guido Mazzoni malereien. (Fibel der Claude von Frankreich) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Princess Claude of France Observing St. Anne Educating the Virgin, c.1505-10, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, MS 159, fol. 14. This image is believed to be in the public domain – it is available on Wikimedia Commons under the following attribution: “Text von Geoffrey Tory geschrieben; von Guido Mazzoni malereien. (Fibel der Claude von Frankreich) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons“.

The parish office demolished, and the Gibbs staircase revealed

The old parish office in Great St Mary’s is looking somewhat changed…

The old parish office

The old parish office

It’s not looking beautiful at the moment, but it’s already possible to see how much lighter the space will be with the windows revealed again. The Gibbs staircase (built by James Gibbs, who also designed the Senate House) will also be able to shine.

A trinket merely Ornamental, given up to sale, might yield a price which would maintain a poor family for a twelve-month: – a delay of a few weeks to deck a table with some sorts of food, or perhaps to enjoy the fragrance of a short-lived flower, would provide plain medicines for the complaints of an whole neighbourhood. – Why then, it may be asked, do any languish under curable disorders, and needless poverty? Nay, why do not all enjoy plenty and comfort?

– Religion the only foundation of charity: a sermon by John Hey preached before the governors of Addenbrooke’s Hospital, on June 26 1777, in Great St. Mary’s Church, Cambridge

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