SAINTS & ART: ‘Bless the Lord, all you angels, mighty in power, fulfilling his word, and heeding his voice’ (Psalm 103)
A paradox of recent times has been that while a focus on the theology of the angels — angelology — has gone into eclipse in the Church, a kind of New Age “spirituality” fascination with them has spread in secular circles. The number of “angel” books in the religion section of bookstores (to the degree those institutions still exist) has grown.
That New Age fascination with angels, however, hardly has the richness of the Church’s millennia old theology of angels. In some sense, it’s a kind of flabby sentimentalism that reduces angels to celestial heavenly helpers, discreetly zooming in and out of situations while otherwise not demanding very much in terms of morals or judgment from those whom they help.
We’ll talk a bit more about this essentially secular “angelology” next week, when we mark the Memorial of the Guardian Angels. Today, let’s focus on our feast of the three archangels mentioned in the Bible: Michael, Gabriel and Raphael.
All three are called “archangels.” In traditional Catholic angelology, there are nine choirs of angels, arranged in three hierarchies. The hierarchies define the degree to which the members of its choirs share in the knowledge of God. Seraphim, for example, most directly and simply share in the knowledge of God. Others apply that knowledge to the governance of the cosmos. Archangels and angels apply that knowledge in dealing with humanity. The word “angel” itself comes from the Greek angelos, “messenger.” The three archangels mentioned in the Bible are discussed in the context of their important messages, not just by speaking but by doing.
St. Michael has traditionally been regarded as the patron and protector of the Church and Christians. That is why Pope Leo XIII introduced in 1886 a “Prayer to St. Michael” for the protection of the Church at the end of Mass. It reads:
St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle; be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, O prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust into Hell, Satan and all the other evil spirits, who prowl throughout the world, seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.
It’s said that Leo did so after a vision of demonic war against the Church. But the Pope did not draw this connection to St. Michael out of thin air. The Bible presents Michael the Archangel as the ultimate celestial warrior in the foundational and final eschatological battle between good and evil. Revelation 12:7-12 speaks of Michael as the great warrior who defeated Satan and expelled him from heaven, from whence he fell upon the earth “who leads the whole world astray.”
The Book of Revelation is not some future game plan for the end of the world. Revelation speaks of the fundamental conflict that has, does and will continue in the world until the end of the world: the conflict between good and evil. So, when Revelation 12 speaks of Michael casting Satan out of heaven, the Church has understood this passage as speaking of a test that already happened, resulting in the fall of Satan and his minions. That fall of some angels preceded humanity’s fall and continues to play out in human history, where the fallen angels perversely seek to enlist additional souls in their futile rebellion. But the message of Revelation is clear: God and good are the final words of human history, not evil.
St. Michael is not then, just a protector of the temporal good of the Church or from ordinary misfortunes. The Biblical context in which he is presented to us presents him in the context of what St. Paul calls “our struggle … against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).
So, while I know that some bishops might think that their suppression of the St. Michael Prayer — which has made a renaissance in recent years and was encouraged by Pope St. John Paul II — proves their commitment to “Vatican II” and “liturgical reform” as well as expresses their proper governance of the liturgy, perhaps they might want to think a bit more profoundly about what and whom this prayer prays against. Instead of such facile “proofs” of their conciliar “commitment,” they might instead apply the Council’s recommendation to “read the signs of the times.” Can the pervasive moral decay that marks today’s world — rot that has even seeped into the Church — be attributed purely to human causes and eradicated just by new policies and charters?
St. Gabriel is clearly the quintessential angelic “messenger.” Just as Michael is part of the eschatological history in which humanity is immersed, Gabriel is part of humanity’s redemption. It is Gabriel who announces the conception of John the Baptist to his father, Zechariah. Gabriel also invites Mary to be the Mother of God, “to conceive and bear a son.” (Notice that Mary, whose conception occurs outside the normal course of human activity, is invited to cooperate with God’s plan through the conception of Jesus. Zechariah and Elizabeth, having engaged in normal sexual intercourse, have already been invited and consented to cooperating with God’s plan. That insight is relevant for how we approach contraception intercourse.) Gabriel also appears in the Old Testament, the messenger who explains to Daniel the meaning of his eschatological visions (see Daniel 8:15-26, 9:21-27).
St. Raphael, whose name means “God has healed,” appears in the Old Testament Book of Tobit precisely in that capacity. Tobit is a book of the Old Testament which Protestants in the 17th century decided to discard, along with six others they call “apocryphal” (“apocryphal” means something different for Catholics) because it was originally not written in Hebrew but Greek, which should not surprise us given the dispersion of Jews in Antiquity across the Hellenized Mediterranean basin.
The Book recounts two healings which, like the New Testament, show that God heals the whole person, body and soul. Raphael leads Tobit to catch a fish and instructs him how to extract parts of his innards. On Raphael’s further instruction, Tobit smears the gall of the fish on his blind father’s eyes, by which his sight is restored (Tobit 11:7-16).
Tobit is also to marry a girl named Sara, who had the misfortune of being betrothed in marriage seven times and to become a widow seven times on her wedding night. Raphael instructs Tobit (6:15-17) how to use elements of the fish to exorcise the demon that plagued her and how to precede their conjugal union with prayer. The demon is driven away and bound, the young marrieds pray together “and they slept both that night” (though not in the sense English “sleeping together” means) and, the next morning — to his father-in-law’s surprise — there was no Tobit to bury.
Raphael, sent by God to this young man, heals those around him so they may live a life in peace according to God’s Law.
Because Michael and Gabriel often get all the attention, today’s painting features St. Raphael. Titian’s “Archangel Raphael and Tobit” portrays Tobit as a little boy looking up trustingly at Raphael. Symbolically, Titian wanted to emphasize Tobit’s looking up to his teacher and dependence on him. Raphael “takes him under his wing” and tutelage, literally pointing the way.
But remember that Tobit is no little boy; he is of marriageable age, and one of the cures to be effected lets him survive his wedding night. Tobit has already gone fishing, as the fish in his left hand reveals. The faithful dog often appears in Tobit/Raphael paintings with the pair on their journey.
Titian was a Venetian Renaissance painter, and the scene represents Venetian conventions: a kind of ancient world background (the Renaissance was “reborning” the classical world) and attention to physical detail coupled with dynamism: the folds of the clothes of Raphael and Tobit both convey the forward sense of movement, while the various eyes (including the dogs) and bodily proportions convey an overall sense of balance to the entire work. The seal near the dog is probably an acknowledgement of the patron that commissioned the work. For a more age-appropriate Tobit by Polish Baroque painter Szymon Czechowicz, see here.
One commentator notes that the Titian painting with Tobit represented as a little boy was probably the inspiration for future paintings featuring the guardian angels, about which we’ll speak more next week.