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

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

Her womb became a tomb

Great St Mary’s houses many memorials, but one of the most poignant is Anne Scot’s. After giving birth to nine children, she died in childbirth on 10 November 1617, leaving four surviving children: John, Anne, Millicent and Elizabeth.









To the tower!

While looking for the boar on the coat of arms of the de Vere family in the south gallery, I went up the wrong flight of stairs and ended up in the GSM tower.  Having got half way up, I carried on to the top for a peek out over the market square.

View from the Great St Mary's tower

View from the Great St Mary’s tower

The 123 steps definitely gave me an appetite for lunch! And it seems that graffiti is nothing new…


1607 graffiti in the GSM tower

The tower offers amazing views over Cambridge, and is still open for visitors most days, despite the current building work.

The Pious Pelican

We don’t really associate pelicans with gore, but medieval images of the big-beaked birds showed the mother pelican piercing her own breast to revive her chicks with her own lifeblood. In some texts, it’s daddy pelican who does the killing and reviving:

“There is a wonderful thing about the pelican, for never did mother-sheep love her lamb as the pelican loves its young. When the young are born, the parent bird devotes all his care and thought to nourishing them. But the young birds are ungrateful, and when they have grown strong and self-reliant they peck at their father’s face, and he, enraged at their wickedness, kills them all. On the third day the father comes to them, deeply moved with pity and sorrow. With his beak he pierces his own side, until the blood flows forth. With the blood he brings back life into the body of his young.”

– Guillaume le Clerc, 13th Century Bestiary

This makes the point of the story a bit more obvious – the pelican is a symbol for God. Medieval authors loved to use vivid imagery to make religious doctrine more memorable – so bestiary authors represented the Fall of Adam with ungrateful baby pelicans and showed the sacrificial crucifixion of Jesus as the pelican’s reviving blood.

Pelican, Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, Folio 32r

Pelican, © Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, Folio 32r

What does this have to do with Great St Mary’s? Well, we have a slightly less gory version of the pious pelican way up on one of the roof beams. Once the scaffolding comes down and our new lighting is installed you’ll be able to see it in all its glory! For now, here’s a handy closeup.

GSM pelican on the roof boss

GSM pelican on the roof boss

How many other pelicans can you find around Cambridge? Corpus Christi College and the Perse School are good places to start…

Translation and manuscript image from the Medieval Bestiary.

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