By Revd Canon Ian Morter
Yesterday, 29 September, was the feast day of St Michael and All Angels, this is one of the major celebrations of the Church that does not commemorate an event in our Lord’s life; his Nativity, his Transfiguration, his Resurrection. Or other feast days that are for followers of Jesus, who lived a life of exceptional faithfulness and has been recognised as a Saint; St Peter, St Francis of Assisi etc. But in the case of St Michael we are celebrating one of the Archangels of God.
I have seen quite a number of statues and paintings of St Michael in churches and art galleries around our own country and in Europe. But one of the most striking and memorable is the one in my photograph, St Michael’s victory over the devil, a bronze sculpture by Jacob Epstein cast in 1958 and mounted on the south end of the east wall outside the 20th Century Coventry Cathedral. Just to illustrate what an impact this sculpture had on me, I last saw it in the mid 1970 when I visited the City for the first and only time. But it is this sculpture that came first to mind when I wanted and image to share with you.
‘To begin at the beginning,” as Dylan Thomas once wrote – what is this bronze all about and why at Coventry Cathedral? The event being commemorated is in the Revelation to St John chapter 12:7-9. “And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world — he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.”
In his sculpture Jacob Epstein departed from the usual depiction of the devil being a dragon (perhaps to prevent the often confusion between St Michael and St George) and portrayed a humanised figure with horns, the Devil and Satan, he is ‘the deceiver‘ of which St John speaks. This and other depictions of this event described in the Book of Revelation shows how good triumphs over evil and will not ultimately prevail.
But why is the sculpture mounted above the steps leading up to the cathedral’s entrance and beside the stained glass of John Piper’s bowed baptistry window? When the Diocese of Coventry was created in 1918 the previous very large 14th century Gothic Parish Church of St Michael & All Angels was elevated to cathedral status. One of the largest parish churches in England it was fitting to be made the cathedral, but sadly it now stands in ruins, bombed almost to destruction during the Coventry Blitz of 14 November 1940 by the German Luftwaffe. So when the new cathedral was rebuilt it retained the dedication to St Michael and an image of its Patron was commissioned to welcome the worshippers to the building, rather like St Peter stands at the apex of the West Front of our own Cathedral in Exeter.
The new Cathedral stands at right angles to the ruins and was designed by Basil Spence, building commenced in 1956 and was completed in 1962. The cathedral was consecrated on 25 May 1962, and Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, composed for the occasion, was premiered in the new cathedral on 30 May to mark its consecration. The theme of Reconciliation has marked the new Cathedral’s ministry for the last 60 years and has been the centre for the ministry of reconciling those whose opposing views has caused so much division, pain and conflict in our world. Again this emphasises that evil will not prevail over good if we work together with God.
Gregory the Great (6th century) wrote in one of his sermons: “The name Michael means ‘Who is like God.’” Whenever some act of wondrous power must be performed, Michael is sent, so that action and name may be made clear that no one can do what God does by his own superior power. So also our ancient foe (Satan) desired in pride to be like God, saying: “I will ascend into heaven; I will exalt my throne above the stars of heaven; I will be like the Most High.” Satan will be allowed to remain in power until the end of the world when he will be destroyed in the final punishment. Then, he will fight with the archangel Michael, as we are told by John in the Revelation; “And there arose war in heaven, and a battle was fought with Michael the archangel.”
Finally a little bit about the sculptor; Sir Jacob Epstein KBE was born in November 1880 of Polish Jewish emigres in New York. He moved to Europe in 1902 to continue his studies first in Paris and then in 1906 moving to London, becoming a British subject in 1911. As an American-British sculptor he pioneered modern sculpture. He also made paintings and drawings, and often exhibited his work. An earlier religious works of art is the aluminium figure of Christ in Majesty (1954–55), was suspended above the nave in Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff. He was knighted in 1954. He died August 1959 in London and the Coventry St Michael was one of his last works only being completed a year before his death.