Days into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, one Ukrainian Orthodox leader reminded his church where they ought to direct their prayers.
“We perceive today that the archangel Michael, together with the whole heavenly host, is fighting for Ukraine. So many people from throughout Ukraine are turning to me and saying that they saw luminous angels over the land of Ukraine,” said Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Kyiv.
“Today we pray, ‘O archangel Michael and all the powers of heaven, fight for Ukraine! Cast down that devil who is attacking us and killing us, bringing devastation and death!’”
Images and tributes to Michael the archangel, the patron saint of the capital and the country, can be found across Kyiv. And although the brutality of Russia’s attacks has left hundreds dead and sent millions fleeing the border, the Ukrainians have awed the world with their fight, resolve, and perseverance—spurred on in part, perhaps, by their admiration for this mighty archangel of war.
Perhaps the most recognized homage is a gold and bronze statue of the angel on an arch commemorating the Lach Gates in Kyiv’s Independence Square, the city’s primary fortification during the Mongols’ siege of Kyiv in 1240. Brandishing his sword and shield, Michael’s image is on Kyiv’s coat of arms and shows up in many other places around the city. (The Soviet Union briefly replaced the celestial being with chestnut leaves before he returned in 1995.)
Kyiv also boasts a glorious public park, St. Volodymyr (or Vladimir) Hill, which includes a fountain dedicated to St. Michael. Its circular border incorporates dragons spewing water and depicts the city’s major cathedrals and monasteries atop mountains. A large image of Michael appears to be flying over this miniature model of Kyiv, holding forth his shield and sword.
Perhaps the largest physical representation in his honor is found in St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery—a national landmark and the site of the newly formed Orthodox Church of Ukraine, united under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Parts of the building complex were restored after the Soviets destroyed many of its original structures in 1935.
This reconstruction took decades. The cathedral finished in 1999, but it wasn’t until 2006 that Russia returned the original mosaics and frescoes they had confiscated and stored in Moscow.
This religious complex includes a historic monastery (lavra) whose architecture, especially the golden domes, follows the patterns of both Byzantine and Ukrainian baroque styles. When these religious buildings were renovated—and in some cases, completely rebuilt—many identified this as a glorious moment for the Ukrainian Orthodox faith and the citizens of Kyiv. Some religious leaders interpreted it as a sign of the “unconquered spiritual strength of the Ukrainian people.”
The term angel comes from the Greek word angelos. It often translates the Hebrew word for “messenger” but has been found in reference to spiritual beings within the Old Testament. For instance, there are passages in the Septuagint (e.g., Ps. 8:5/MT 8:6; Dan. 3:25/LXX 3:92; and others) when the Greek term angelos is a translation of the Hebrew term for “God.” Starting in the fifth century, Christians began to separate these beings into hierarchies.
The highest forms of spiritual beings were the closest to God and consisted of the seraphim, cherubim, and thrones. The second sphere contained the dominions, virtues, and powers, who were identified as heavenly governors. In the third and lowest level dwelt the principalities, archangels, and angels—who functioned as heavenly guides, protectors, and messengers to earth.
In the New Testament, as I wrote in A Guide to Christian Art, archangels were “present at almost every major event in the life of Jesus, from the Annunciation to Mary to the Resurrection. As the heavenly messengers, guides, and protectors of the church militant on earth, the archangels were symbolic of the Christian tradition, especially in the medieval period.”
In the Old Testament, angels filled God’s heavenly court and were his servants. They were called on, for instance, to guard the entrance to the Garden of Eden, protect the faithful and punish the guilty, and convey divine messages to humanity. The cherubim and seraphim guarded God’s throne, decorated Solomon’s temple, and protected the ark of the covenant.
Michael’s name in Hebrew means “like unto God” or “Who is like unto God?” Some believe he first appears in the Book of Joshua, just prior to the battle of Jericho—where an angel identifies himself to Israel’s leader as “commander of the army of the Lord” and we learn he has a “drawn sword in his hand” (5:13–14).
In the Book of Daniel, in a vision, Gabriel explains that Michael helped him defeat Persian rulers (10:13). Later in that chapter (v. 21) Gabriel identifies Michael as “your prince,” and two chapters later (12:1) “the great prince who protects your people.”
Michael is notably not a prince of any particular place or thing; neither are the other archangels who are likewise identified as “prince” or “saint.” Instead, the term serves as an honorific as God the Father is the King of heaven—hence those who descend from him in positions of power are identified as princes.
In the New Testament, Jude 9 mentions that Michael rescued Moses’ body from Satan. Here he invoked the Lord in his rebuke of the Devil, a rebuke that became a common exorcism formula in later Christian tradition. (The Catholic church uses a special exorcism prayer to Michael.) And in Revelation 12:7–9, after war breaks out in heaven, we learn that Michael and his angels fought Satan and his angels, hurling them down to the earth.
These images of aggression and war gave Michael a reputation among the early church as a fighter. Christians considered Michael a leader of the church militant—in the believers’ perpetual struggle against the Devil and the ongoing fight against persecution.
Patristic texts identify Michael as the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night that guided the Hebrews through the Exodus. They further identify Michael as the chief commander of God who annihilated 185,000 Assyrian soldiers (2 Kings 19:35); as the horseman who struck and killed Heliodorus at the temple treasury (2 Maccabees 3:24–26); as the protector of the three Hebrews in the fiery furnace (Dan. 3:22–25); and as the angel who transferred Habbakuk by his hair from Judea to Babylon to take food to Daniel in the lions’ den (Dan. 14:33–37).
Although warfare imagery characterizes much perception of the archangel throughout history, he also has gained a reputation as a dream revealer, miracle worker, and healer. Early examples of Michael’s ability to interpret dreams and heal emerge in Greek magical papyri, where in various spells, the magician invokes angels such as Michael to fulfill personal requests.
According to Orthodox tradition, Constantine built a sanctuary dedicated to the archangel in a village just north of Constantinople. Known as the Michaelion, it became a model for future Orthodox churches.
The location itself became associated with healing waters. Tradition held that Michael helped a man heal his mute daughter by instructing through a dream that she drink from the spring. Both the father and child became Christians. In another incident, Michael restored water to a church and saved it after a group of pagans had cut off its supply. The ensuing spring that arose was said to offer the sick healing and restoration.
Michael is also credited with answering the prayers of Saint Gregory the Great to end a plague tormenting Rome at the end of the sixth century. Gregory saw a vision of Michael sheathing his sword atop the Mausoleum of Hadrian and believed this meant the pandemic had ended. In honor of Michael, Gregory renamed and dedicated the mausoleum to him as Castel Sant’Angelo (Castle of the Holy Angel). A monumental sculpture of Gregory’s vision of Michael sheathing his sword rests atop the building to this day.
Another tradition says that Michael was the conveyer of Christian souls and that he brought Mary a palm branch as the sign of the annunciation of her prayed-for death. It is said that his was one of the voices heard by Joan of Arc. Michael is considered the patron saint of the sick, of soldiers, and of all Christian souls. His name is often invoked in battle and in danger at sea.
Many of the beliefs, traditions, and teachings about Michael began in the earliest centuries of Christianity.
In a time when many believers experienced severe persecution, much of the church believed in an imminent Second Coming, when Christ would return as the leader of heavenly forces to vanquish the Devil and all of God’s enemies on earth. The new kingdom of God would be established in which all Christians would be restored to a perfected form, living in perpetual peace and comfort under the protection of God. Given Michael’s biblical description, historical and literary narratives include him playing a significant role in this apocalyptic confrontation.
After the East and West church schism of 1053, the Catholic church characterized Michael in four primary ways, many of them drawn from his scriptural descriptions.
First, Michael is known as the guardian of the church. Next, he leads God’s armies. As the commander, he battles and triumphs over the power of hell, a fight which occurs cosmically and individually—the internal turmoil a person suffers, torn between good and evil. Michael also weighs souls on Judgement Day, a responsibility that manifests in his iconography, which often incorporates scales and balances. Finally, the church understands Michael as the angel of death, the being who carries deceased souls to heaven. In the moment before a person passes, Michael offers the soul a final chance at redemption. The feast day honoring Michael falls on September 29.
Whereas the Catholic Church tends to emphasize Michael in terms of defeating the Devil in the battle for the Christian soul, Orthodox Christians relate to the archangel by frequently invoking him in prayers for protection from invasion by enemies or civil war and for the defeat of adversaries on the battlefield.
Constantine the Great reported that Michael appeared to him in a vision, intervened in battles, and protected cities from assault. The Russian Orthodox church venerates Michael alongside the Theotokos (Mary) and sees them jointly as God’s armies—especially to protect cities, churches, and monasteries.
While he is often referred to as St. Michael, as they do for many other angelic figures, the Catholic church never formally beatified him. Instead, simply due to his place at God’s side as the leader of heavenly armies against Satan/the Devil/Lucifer, he is recognized as a saint—a holy figure capable of helping Christian souls and even performing miracles with God’s aid. His feast day falls on November 8.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Protestants do not have a consistent view of Michael. Yet this does not suppose that they are unconcerned with angels or Michael’s biblical portrayal. The role of angels secretly ministering or assisting believers throughout their lives has been popularized by evangelicals. Likewise, Pentecostals also acknowledge Michael’s chief role but view him along with all angels as celestial beings who participate in the spiritual conflict between good and evil. However, it is fair to say that most Protestant denominations recognize Michael as an archangel from his biblical episodes. As Billy Graham writes in Angels, “he is the angel above all angels.” Meanwhile, the Anglican and Methodist traditions recognize four archangels: Michael, Raphael, Gabriel, and Uriel.
Some (i.e., Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Latter-day Saints) hold particular views including that Michael is one of the manifestations of Jesus (Seventh-day Adventists). In other words, Michael is another name for Jesus in heaven—that is, in his prehuman and post-resurrection existence. Others claim that he is Adam, the Ancient of Days, or the patriarch of the human family (Latter-day Saints).
The winged beasts guarding the royal palaces of Assyria and Babylonia inspired initial Christian angel iconography. As I write in A Guide to Christian Art:
By the fourth century, angels appeared as male figures, usually without feet and dressed in garments of a white pallium over a tunic. In early Christian art, angels were depicted as wingless, but wings became normative by the fifth century.
By the High Middle Ages, angels were more elegantly garbed (depending on their station in the hierarchies) and appeared to be androgynous. Although the principle of angels being sexless continued, renaissance artists presented them as male figures with fashionably delicate facial features and long hair, dressed in contemporary garments (making them more approachable). As the lines between the angelic spheres became blurred, along with the renaissance adaptation of classical Greco-Roman art, plump little children with wings began showing up in Christian art.
Artistically, Michael has often been depicted in armor, as the chief commander of the heavenly hosts. The archangel wields a sword with one hand. His other hand may hold a complementary or opposing symbol including a spear, shield, branch of a date tree, or white banner (which may or may not include a red cross).
In contrast, Byzantine icons depict Michael sporting an orb in one hand and a staff in the other. At times, he also appears standing on a horizontal body. In his raised left hand Michael holds a baby, symbolizing the person’s soul.
In early Christian and Byzantine art, he wore a winged helmet and sandals and held a caduceus like Mercury (or Hermes). By the early medieval period, Michael was represented as a handsome young man, clad in armor—who carried a sword, spear, lance, or scales and had a dragon or Satan at his feet.
That said, his depictions in Christian art evolved with the developments in artistic style and varied by geographic region.
Furthermore, Ukrainian Orthodox iconography of Michael as the commander of God’s holy army is fused with other images seen and displayed in churches and in public processions. And so, by the time his statues in Kyiv were built, his artistic image reflected both Eastern and Western Christian influences.
Their land’s protector
Nearly two months into the invasion, Russians continue to press Ukraine in a war with serious geopolitical—and religious—stakes. Back in the 980s, the man later known as Vladimir the Great brought together his kingdom of Rus people in a territory containing regions of modern-day Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. After his own conversion to Christianity, he brought his faith to the region, and Kyiv became the capital of his new Christian empire.
Several centuries later, when the city came under fire in the Mongol attacks, many began to flee to the North. In turn, the Russian Orthodox church began to build its legacy in Moscow. By 1686, the Patriarch of Constantinople—considered within Orthodox leadership to be the first among equals—placed the patriarchate of Kyiv under the ascendant patriarchal church of Moscow. That is, until 2018, when this decision was reversed.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and the Russian Orthodox church authorities in Moscow want to claim the Christianity of Kyiv as their own. (In 2016, Putin erected a statue of Vladimir the Great at the Kremlin, indicating Russia as his true heir.) And yet today, many Ukrainians are praying against this and rallying themselves as they petition Michael, their land’s protector.
As Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk declared, “Here in Kyiv we perceive that the patron of our city is the archangel Michael, who with the cry ‘Who is like God?’ cast into the abyss Lucifer—the one who rose up against God’s truth and was the leader of the diabolic armies.”
Diane Apostolos-Cappadona is professor emerita of religious art and cultural history and Haub Director in the Catholic Studies Program at Georgetown University.
Additional research conducted by Rodolfo Galvan Estrada III.