ANGELS: Saint Michael, Archangel, by Jacques Le Goff

Saint Michael, Archangel Jacques Le Goff

From In Search of Sacred Time: Jacobus de Voragine and the Golden Legend

Saint Michael presents an exceptional case in the Golden Legend [a collection of writings on the lives of the saints] because, even though he has certainly played the role of a saint in Christian devotion, he was in fact an archangel.  As Alain Boureau notes, Saint Michael is the only one of the three archangels mentioned in the Old Testament (the two others being Gabriel and Raphael) to whom Jacobus de Voragine devotes a chapter.  The principal reason for this, I believe, is that Michael plays a particularly important role in the sacralization of time, which, I am attempting to show, is the underlying theme of the Golden Legend.  Unlike Alain Boureau, however, I do not think that the presence of Saint Michael in this summa is connected with the emergence, at the beginning of the scholastic period, of the notion of the aevum, a time particular to the angels and distinct from terrestrial temporality.  Although Saint Michael appears at the beginning of creation as one of the great troupe of the angels, he is nonetheless linked to human temporality in a special and essential way.  He represents, in fact, the third element of sacred time that Jacobus sees as drawing toward eternity, the other two kinds of time given to humanity by God being the liturgical time of the temporale and the linear time of the sanctorale.  It is Saint Michael who, on the Day of Judgment, will recall to the resuscitated dead what Jesus gave to them by his incarnation and who will display before them the cross, the nails, the lance, and the crown of thorns.  Although Jacobus de Voragine (unlike many of his contemporaries) was not obsessed by millenarianism or by the vision of the Last Times, he was aware that the time of humanity is bound toward an end, and he saw in Saint Michael as a good spokesman for the importance of that eschatological time.  While waiting for Judgment Day to reveal his role as the herald of humanity’s end time, Michael is credited with playing a critical and highly original role in the theology of temporality developed in the Golden Legend.  In fact, Saint Michael has manifested himself within human history by means of an apparition, a rare but essential kind of temporality, charged with the supernatural, that lasts for only a flash of time.

Saint Michael’s apparitions have left their mark on the chronology of terrestrial time, or, to put it more simply, on history.  Jacobus de Voragine declares that there have been several apparitions of Saint Michael and, in fact, he cites five of them.  The first took place, he tells us, in the year 390 at Mount Gargano in Apulia.  The second occurred about AD 710 on the coast of Normandy and was memorialized by the building, on a rock, of an extraordinary church, the abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel.  The third apparition took place in Rome in the time of Pope Gregory, who reigned from 590 to 604, and it led to the transformation of the former pagan tomb of the emperor Hadrian on the banks of the Tiber into a Christian palace-church known as the Castel Sant’Angelo.  The fourth apparition refers to the many visions of choirs of angels.  The fifth apparition, cited by Cassiodorus in his Tripartite History (sixth century), took place in the Byzantine Christian world, near Constantinople.

After defining Saint Michael by his apparitions, Jacobus de Voragine turns in his Golden Legend to Michael’s association with the notion of Victory, a privileged moment when good triumphs over evil.  One of Saint Michael’s most celebrated victories was, of course, his defeat of the dragon, but rather than dwelling on this legendary tale of the princess delivered from the monster who was holding her captive, Jacobus portrays Michael as the standard-bearer of the divine army that defeated the dragon (who represents Lucifer), a victory that drove Lucifer from Heaven and into the “dark air” that the author situates not in a subterranean hell, but in the space between Heaven and Earth.  But beyond these specific and highly important victories, Saint Michael provides Jacobus de Voragine with an opportunity to recall that the angels win victories over demons every day.  Thus the evocation of Saint Michael provides an occasion to stress that, within the time of humanity that unfolds daily, there is something like a time of the victory won on a daily basis by those divine creatures who are the angels and demons, some of whom have remained good while others have fallen into evil.  The Golden Legend is full of them, for, even aside from apparitions, all men are constantly within the reach of these beings, ready to be helped or attacked.  This chapter dedicated to Saint Michael thus gives witness to the belief, which was very important in the thirteenth century, in guardian angels who assist every human being individually, and who, although they will live into eternity, live also within the terrestrial time of each person whom they protect.  Finally, Jacobus de Voragine recalls that Saint Michael’s greatest victory will be over the Antichrist, at the hour when he kills him.  Saint Michael is thus the principal actor in the great event that will announce the end of time on Earth.

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