ST. MICHAEL SLAYING THE DRAGON
There are many legends about St. Michael, who is also represented as the Archangel, or head of the whole company of angels, and most of these legends spring from a few passages in the Bible, chiefly two. One of these is in the Epistle of Jude, the ninth verse, where the archangel Michael is alluded to as "contending with the Devil." The other is in the Book of Revelation, beginning at the seventh verse of the ninth chapter:—
"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."
The Book of Revelation is full of strange imagery; and ever since it was written, men learned and unlearned have tried to turn its impassioned verses into real historical scenes, past or to come. Above all, this figure of a dragon, a monster part man, part brute, puzzled people, and they have all sorts of explanations to make of it.
In our fairy tales we often hear of hobgoblins and dragons and like fearful beings, and we think of them as make-believe creatures, and sometimes are afraid of them, even though if we are questioned we say we know they do not really exist. But in Raphael's day, dragons were by no means unreal things to people. Some thought they had seen them, and there were a great many persons who if they had not seen them themselves were sure others had seen them.
In Raphael's day there were large tracts of the world, dark woods, inaccessible mountains, which had hardly been explored at all, and people fancied them haunted by strange men and stranger animals. As more and more light is let into the world, these dark places disappear, and we have come to know just what kinds of animals and men there are everywhere. Yet still, we are not quite sure there may not be singular beasts lurking out of sight, like the sea serpent for example.
Now, the dragon in early days stood for what was ugly and terrible and a hater of good. The Greeks believed there were dragons, and they had many tales of how Hercules or this or that hero slew a dragon. To the Christian of the Middle Ages the dragon stood at one end of the scale, an archangel at the other; for as the dragon was all darkness and hideousness, the archangel was all light and beauty and gloriousness. It thrilled every one to think of the angel of light fighting with and overcoming the beast of darkness; for every one knew that sort of struggle was going on in the world, even in himself.
Raphael's picture gives a fine contrast between the beautiful, strong, young archangel and his ugly foe. St. Michael hovers in mid air as light and graceful as a bird, while Satan squirms beneath his feet, a loathsome creature scorched by the flames and sulphurous fumes, which pour from the clefts of the rock.
In the artist's imagination both are spirits, and so both are winged; for wings, which carry one through the air, naturally are symbols of spiritual existence. But the wings of the archangel are the wings of some great, glorious bird like the eagle, which soars upward toward the sun; the wings of the dragon are more like the wings of a bat, which flies only in darkness and clings to the roofs of caves.
After all, the first and last impression which we get from the picture is the lightning-like movement of the archangel. He darts at the dragon as if he had come from heaven with the swiftness of light, his robe flying like the wind away from him, his wings not spread in flight, but lifted in his poise, and his face bearing the serenity of an assured victory as he lifts his spear for its final thrust.
The great English poet Milton has made use of this same subject in "Paradise Lost." Here is a portion of the story in the sixth book, lines 316-330:—
Uplifted imminent, one stroke they aimed
That might determine, and not need repeat
As not of power, at once; nor odds appeared
In might or swift prevention.
But the sword of Michael from the armory of God
Was given him, tempered so that neither keen
Nor solid might resist that edge: it met
The sword of Satan, with steep force to smite
Descending, and in half cut sheer; nor stayed
But with swift wheel reverse, deep entering, shared
All his right side.
Then Satan first knew pain,
And writhed him to and fro convolved; so sore
The griding sword with discontinuous wound
Passed through him."