The two paintings of the Archangel Michael by Raphael were the direct reason for wanting to visit the Louvre again. Paris being only two hours away from our home, I travel there regularly. But Raphael hadn’t moved me much in the past. And seeing the two paintings in person didn’t blow me away this time either.
The first painting is very small and created when Raphael was in his early twenties. It’s interesting mostly because the figures of Michael and the monster are set in a desolate landscape that seems to refer to the book of Revelation (in which the Archangel makes a prominent appearance). It’s a mysterious scene depicting monsters, souls of the damned and a city on fire. Young Raphael is trying to tell a big story in a small picture.
The second painting is very large, and painted two years before Raphael’s early demise. A much more mature work, the painting depicts Lucifer and Michael in an otherwise empty landscape, dark and rocky at the bottom, where the demon is being trampled, with some signs of volcanic activity, bright and peaceful behind the triumphing angel. The diagonal composition and decorative flying fabric already announce the baroque style in an otherwise high renaissance image.
In both pictures Michael is wearing golden armor, covered in some areas by blue fabric (a skirt in the first and a cape in the second). This inspired the thought that perhaps my Michael could be covered completely by body hugging golden armor that would only leave the face free, prompting the spectator to wonder whether he is made of gold. He is an angel after all, not a human. I may also copy the idea of the light flowing fabric on top of the armor.
Or perhaps the color of his skin is simply gold. It does appear so in the second painting. Only the decorations in the metal show the difference between skin and armor. Maybe in the diorama he could be fairly naked.
In both images, Michael’s wings appear heavy, immobile almost, as if they too were made of gold. That’s an interesting idea, making the figure seem more like a statue than a person (which would fit the diorama concept). But I also like the opposite: bright white feathers, divine, not his own, directed by God, as if Michael is a puppet on strings. Feathers. Fingers. Feathers everywhere. Maybe Michael has many hands?
The scale-like pattern on Michael’s armor looks similar to Lucifer’s skin.
The blue fabric against blue sky makes him look ethereal.
The spear point is cross shaped. If it were to pierce the devil, it would leave the imprint of the cross of Christ in the victim’s flesh.
It came to me that in none of the images of Michael and Lucifer that I can recall, the devil is ever killed. Michael always only subdues him. In both Raphaels he balances on one leg, holding down the demon’s body. He dances on the evil. Perhaps this is significant. Perhaps he does not kill because the battle against evil is an ongoing, never-ending process.
Maybe Lucifer and Michael are each other’s mirror. Both angels, demonstrating the opposite paths that can be taken.
I discovered a few more depictions of the Archangel on my stroll through the museum. The Ercole Roberti had a similar thing going on with hard armor covered by flimsy fabric, transparent even in this case. Lucifer appears completely naked. It made me think that perhaps in my version he could just be a naked human, not a devil, just a man with dark, grey or greenish skin.
The piece by the anonymous medieval artist referred to as the Maitre des Anges Rebelles is very spectacular. Floating in a sky seemingly ablaze with gold several golden angels battle dark demons falling to a small dark planet beneath. In the top triangular part God on a throne surrounded by angels and saints much as described in the book of Revelation.
When I wandered off into the Object d’art section, references to the archangel didn’t stop. I saw a curious bronze lamp by Félicie de Fauveau from 1830 depicting Michael accompanied by four winged knights in heavy armor resting or asleep. There was also a bronze clock from the same period with hands in the shape of snakes featuring a scene with a very feminine archangel towering upright over a fallen demon who seemed twice their size, snakes everywhere. And finally a very delicately sculpted ivory spectacle with an elegant archangel standing or floating atop two demons, one upside down, whose positions seem to be mockingly imitated by cherubs alongside Michael. Again, Michael dressed and the demons naked.
What makes the synthetic image so powerful?
The Louvre is an interesting place for my research because the collection contains both the older paintings that inspire the Synthetic Image project and the younger ones that don’t have the right effect. The difference is very clear. But hard to put into words. Let alone apply to my medium. Sadly at the moment the museum rooms where the strongest representatives of the power of the Synthetic Image, the Northern Renaissance, are hung were closed for renovations. I may need to resort to juxtaposing similar reproductions to figure it out, for now.
There were many artists copying from the masterpieces on the wall. But invariably their copies seemed to be lacking the essence of the original. It feels as if modern copyists don’t see the picture in front of them. It’s like they are trying to paint a photographic reproduction. Preferably with some improvements in terms of realism. Maybe they don’t understand that what is bad about the original in terms of realism is what makes it so good as art.
It made me think that the mantra they hammered on in art school is wrong. Maybe we should not “paint what we see”. If we do, we seem to miss the point. We stay on the surface, quite literally, and our paintings are mediocre. Maybe we should “paint what we know” instead, what we know to be true, how we feel inside that things exist. It doesn’t need to look real. It should feel real!
As my stroll slowly approached the modern age, paintings started to become more narrative. They were clearly trying to tell stories. Not the myths and legends that everyone knows but very specific tales. It was quite impossible to decipher many among them. And yet the artists seemed to try their best to express this or the other story. A waste, if you ask me. I think referring to stories is fine. Just assume people know them. Even if they don’t, they will feel the mystery. Or just add text somewhere, telling the story. Another mantra, “Show, don’t tell”, doesn’t seem to apply to The Synthetic Image. Just tell, and make a great picture. Don’t conflate the two. Don’t try to express the story in an image.
Another thing I noticed is that figures in more modern paintings (starting already in the 17th century) are striking because they feel like real people. You can sense their personality. Their strength or weakness. The painting records and expresses this. Without trying to rise above it. And while that often brings a pleasant experience to the spectator, it’s not what I am after in the Synthetic Image. I need more distance, more archetypes perhaps, figures unlike you and me, but that do, perhaps, sometimes experience emotions that we do too. Only they know how to deal with them much better than we do. They are exemplary. Unlike we.