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Icon of the Archangel Michael

Icon of the Archangel Michael, late 10th–first half of 11th century, silver-gilt, gold cloisonné enamel, stones, pearls (now missing), glass, 44 x 36 cm, likely made in Constantinople (Treasury of the Basilica of San Marco, Venice). A conversation with Dr. Ariel Fein and Dr. Brad Hostetler. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Narrator] We're standing in the Church of San Marco in Venice, in the Treasury, and we're looking at a radiant Byzantine icon of the Archangel Michael. In his left hand, he's holding a staff, and his right hand is open in a gesture of intercession, suggesting to the worshiper that he can intercede on their behalf with God. On the outer frame, we are looking at gold materials with ornate filigree, and as we move into the center, we see this relief figure of the Archangel Michael. - [Narrator] And he consists of a variety of materials. The face is executed in repousse, where the metal is pushed from behind, and then chasing, which would allow for the fine details pushed in from the front. - [Narrator] His garments are rich in decoration. They are covered in precious stones and enamel, imitating ornate materials. - [Narrator] And this enamel work is especially interesting, because the two pieces that construct the two wings are some of the largest pieces of Byzantine enamel that survived, and the upper portion of the wing curves up. And this is one of the only pieces that we know of which enamel was applied to a curved surface. - [Narrator] We should really be looking at this work as a work of sculpture. It invites touch, it projects into the viewer's space, and invites a reaction from the worshiper's senses. - [Narrator] And this multi-colored surface, this multi-textural service, creates a wondrous surface for the viewer, and there's no one place where your eye fixates. It's always moving, always dynamic. - [Narrator] We can imagine that when a worshiper approached this object in a dimly lit church, with candles lit before the icon, or oil lamps flickering, the changing lights would've radiated across the surface of animating the icon as the figure appeared to come to life. - [Narrator] In Byzantine sources, icons are described as responding to the viewer. This may be the kind of icon that is changing in front of the viewer through various different lighting conditions. - [Narrator] The use of enamel is an especially appropriate medium for the representation of the Archangel Michael. In Byzantine thought, the angels were both fire and spirit. And so to use a material like enamel, created through taking crushed powdered glass, fired at high temperatures, is a perfect substance to represent this figure, who is both fire and spirit. Now, this icon did not originate in Venice. It arrived likely in the years following the tumultuous events of 1204. Western European fighters set out with the hope of capturing Jerusalem, the Holy Land, and surrounding regions from Muslim hands. And while the Holy Land was their target, in the fourth crusade of 1204, they were diverted to Constantinople. And there the Crusaders lead siege to the city, and eventually conquered Constantinople. - [Narrator] And during this time, many of the precious objects that were housed in treasuries in Constantinople were looted and taken to the West. And Venice became one of the main repositories for these precious objects. - [Narrator] In Venice, it was a statement of the conquest of Constantinople. - [Narrator] What we're looking at today is an icon that has been subjected to different periods of transformation, additions, alterations, and restoration. The small round enamels are byzantine, but they could have come from another object and added to this when it was in Venice. The thin filigree on the outer frame, this is thought to be Venetian in origin, and added at a later time. And even in the 19th century, the object underwent extensive restorations. - [Narrator] It is truly a masterpiece of Byzantine craftsmanship. (jazzy piano music)