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:
“And there was war in heaven: Michael 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.
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.
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:
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.