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:

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“.

Margaret and the Dragon

Today I’m reading about Margaret Beaufort’s early life – she was already a widow and the mother of the future King Henry VII when she was just thirteen years old.

Leaving aside her links to Great St Mary’s, and her endowment of two Cambridge colleges, I’ve been thinking about that traumatic childbirth. She almost died, and was never to have another child, almost certainly due to injuries sustained during labour.

It’s hardly fantastical to assume that Margaret would have called on her namesake, St Margaret of Antioch, for intervention during the birth – Margaret was the patron saint of childbirth. Thanks to the story that she burst forth from a dragon’s belly unharmed after making the sign of the cross, Margaret was one of the saints most frequently called on, in fervent prayers to protect labouring mother and newborn infant.

An introductory reading list on St Margaret’s 13th century stanzaic Life is available here.

Here are a couple of late 15th century images of the saint which might give an idea of who that thirteen-year-old girl imagined as she called for aid to bring the future King of England into the world.

Alabaster statuette of St Margaret of Antioch, c. 1475, Toulouse. On display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Alabaster statuette of St Margaret of Antioch, c. 1475, Toulouse. On display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York – for more detail, see the Met’s website.

Detail of St Margaret from a Book of Hours in the British Library - Harley 2974  f 165v. The manuscript dates from c. 1460-1470, north-east France. More details on the BL's website.

Detail of St Margaret from a Book of Hours in the British Library – Harley 2974 f 165v. The manuscript dates from c. 1460-1470, north-east France. More details on the BL’s website.

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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