Carlo Crivelli’s Saint Michael

Carlo Crivelli: Saint Michael

Carlo Crivelli: Saint Michael (about 1476)
90.5 x 26.5 cm
tempera on poplar
currently in the National Gallery in London

This analysis was done on 18 January 2017 based on photographic reproductions found on the internet.

One of 4 panels from an altarpiece in Ascoli Piceno, a town in the Marche region in East Italy where Crivelli died in 1495. The other panels depict Saint Jerome (in red, holding a book and a building and with a lion at his feet), Saint Lucy (holding a palm branch and a round plate with eyes) and Saint Peter Martyr (in monk’s habit with a sword in his head and a dagger in his chest). I didn’t find an image of the entire altarpiece.

Michael is looking down at the demon under his feet. He is holding his sword behind his back. Not so much as if he is about the strike, but in rest, as if he knows he has won and is in control of the situation. This relaxed attitude is confirmed by the delicate pose of his left hand as it holds a scale between thumb and index finger. In the scale a tiny naked kneeling man and woman appear lighter than the silver tent-shaped weight in the other scale. Maybe the tent represents the heavenly Jerusalem (the tabernacle of the lord). Crivelli has omitted one of the ropes that would be holding up the scales presumably not to intersect with the figures. The scales are tilted towards the spectator in a way that defies either gravity or perspective.

Michael’s chest is covered by ornate golden armor centrally featuring a baby’s head, possibly a cherub, and flowers on his nipples in an ornament that vaguely suggests breasts. His skirt consists of several layers, three of which appear to be made of feathers. Maybe they refer to his wings that are only partially visible, folded behind his back. They seem to have the same colors: red, green and white. His thighs are covered by armor in the shape of lion heads. His calves seem to protrude out of the lions’ mouths. Right under his knees appears a golden fish-scale pattern, perhaps indicating chain mail. Suprisingly, and confirming his relaxed attitude perhaps, his lower calves, ankles and feet are bound in cloth, leaving an opening for bare toes. The bandages have the same striking pale blue color as the armor on his thighs, underneath the lion heads. He wears a short gold-rimmed cape that is green (velvet?) on the inside and red or pink (satin?) on the outside. Crowning his half long golden hair in page style is a pearl band with a gem in the center and a green feather that looks like a palm leaf. Behind his head a golden aureola with ornamented edge.

The background is a golden floral geometric pattern (like wallpaper) bordered at the bottom by an ornate terracotta frieze. The floor is made of yellow marble and is less than a meter wide. The scene takes place on some kind of ledge. Two shapes in the ornamented border of the ledge seem to mimic the demon’s head.

The demon beneath Michael’s feet is green. He lies on his back. He is naked. His feet are brown and remind of bird of prey claws. He has a tale like a lizzard’s that ends in his crotch with something like a sex organ. His body is shaped like a male human’s but his skin consists of scales, like a reptile’s. On the back of the calves we see some curly hairs. His left hand clasps Michael’s calf while the right reaches up. His fingers end in black claws. He has short bat-like wings, green like the rest of him. The demon’s head is covered by short brown thick curly hair and hangs over the ledge. He has two curved horns that look like those of some kind of gazelle or even an insect. His ears are long and pointy and remind a little of a donkey’s (also because of the white hair inside). Two white fangs and a red tongue protrude from his red lips. He might be smiling. Like Michael’s, Satan’s eyes are not visible. He seems to be looking into Michael’s eyes.

Because the two figures are engaged in an almost intimate staring context, the scene feels closed. Or maybe Michael is simply making sure that the demon cannot escape, for our benefit.

Since the humans in the scale are too light, presumably they are damned. Maybe that is who Satan reaches out for. Perhaps Michael’s calm signifies resignation. Maybe the scene is not static at all and we see Michael putting away his sword, preparing to release the light-weight humans to the devil. The baby on his chest armor seems shocked or even sad. The demon seems to be gurgling “These two are mine, Michael! Give them to me!” And Michael looks at him and then at the scales and he knows that Satan is right. There’s nothing he can do for the little people.

That the humans are man and woman could refer to Adam and Eve, the first humans that Michael delivered to evil, to the extent that he chased them out of the Garden of Eden.

Michael’s face appears calm. He knows how these things work. “I am stronger than you, Satan. But rules are rules. These two are yours. They are too light for Heaven.”

The entire composition fits tightly within the vertical panel.
There are some very light drop shadows behind Satan, to the right, consistent with the light in the entire scene, coming from the top left. Here and there dark lines appears between two shapes, giving the drawn effect that is typical for Crivelli’s work, but these might be interpreted as shadows too. Some are blurrier than others, suggesting depth.

Part of this painting is made in relief. In a reproduction it’s hard to see what exactly. The ornaments on the armor definitely, perhaps also on the arm, and the locks on the legs. Maybe the head band too (silver!). And the gem? The aureola’s border seems relief as well. Elements of the scale maybe too.


— Michaël Samyn.






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