St. Michael overcoming Satan

1819-24, John Flaxman (1755 – 1826), Plaster model

Centrepiece of a unique Victorian installation of plaster models, this sculpture of the archangel battling his foe is the final masterpiece of this acclaimed artist.

This full-scale plaster model was a preparation for a marble sculpture for the 3rd Earl of Egremont. The work is still in place at his family’s estate: Petworth House . One of Flaxman’s contemporaries, the sculptor Richard Westmacott (1775 – 1856), celebrated this piece as ‘the most distinguished proof of Flaxman’s powers of heroic composition.’

Flaxman based the composition of this sculpture on Raphael’s painting of St. Michael (1518), in the Louvre , portraying the archangel as a graceful youth, serene and calm as he lifts his spear ready to strike his foe, pinned under his left foot. 

After the Denman Gift of Flaxman’s work to UCL in 1847, a public appeal raised funds from over 140 subscribers, including Prince Albert, to restore and display the casts. Thomas Donaldson, who was then designing the Main Library, decided to display a selection of the casts along the walls of a new staircase and octagonal vestibule under the dome leading up to the library. St. Michael became the focal point of this decorated octagonal hall, known today as the Flaxman Gallery. The sculpture served to unite William Wilkins’ earlier entrance portico with Donaldson’s Library under the University’s iconic dome.

The Story of St. Michael

Described as the great protector in the Book of Revelation, St. Michael is God’s chief warrior in the heavenly fight against Satan. 

The scene depicted in this sculpture is from the battle which ensued when Lucifer – the ‘Light Bearer’, ‘Morning Star’ and chief of all the angels – led a third of God’s angels in rebellion. Michael was loyal to God and led the remaining angels against Lucifer, whom he defeated and cast into hell. Michael was made the chief of all angels as a reward for his loyalty, and is considered by Catholic Church to be a saint. Following his Fall, Lucifer became Satan – ‘The Adversary’ – and rules over the other fallen angels in hell. He awaits the battle at the end of time when he will meet St. Michael and the armies of God once more.

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