Chapter 46. The Case of the Archangel Michael Defeating Satan
My client indicated that the two holes in the upper left of the painting had been the result of bullets fired by invading military forces during the Second World War. Given that St. Michael is the patron saint of police officers, paramedics, firefighters and the military, it would seem that the perpetrators of this damage either were not aware of that connection or had other, perhaps atheistic, motives.
The painting is a framed oil-on-canvas copy after Guido Reni (15751642), and is dated and signed in Serbian Cyrillic in the lower right, D. Mauric(h) Belgrade 1926. Known as The Archangel Michael Defeating Satan, the image is approximately 34 by 48 inches.
The original is in a private collection, and another copy is in the church of Santa Maria della Concezione Rome, Italy. The painting is a metaphoric representation of the rivalry between two important papal families, the Barberini and the Pamphilij families. It was commissioned by Cardinal Antonio Barberini (brother of the ruling Pope Urban VIII) and depicts the Archangel Michael trampling Satan, whose features are recognizable as those belonging to members of the Pamphilij family.
In retaliation, when Giovanni Battista Pamphilij became Pope Innocent X, he sought revenge by charging the Barberini family with corruption and confiscating its property. Cardinals Francesco and Antonio Barberini and Gonfalonier Taddeo Barberini escaped to France and asked for the protection of Cardinal Mazarin. He threatened to send troops to attack the Papal States if the Cardinals were not allowed to return to Rome.
The artist, D. Mauric(h), was thought to be a Croat from Zagreb, the present-day capital of the Republic of Croatia. Prior to the Second World War, he was well known for his illustrations, cartoons and frescoes. He was very skilled at making copies of paintings of Serbian saints on demand, and at producing commissioned pieces. His works were at the National Museum in Belgrade, in what is now Serbia.
Is this painting about the triumph of the Catholic Church over the forces of darkness? Is it meant to be a devotional piece designed to solicit veneration on the part of the faithful? Was it the intent of the artist to surreptitiously reference nationalism and national identity in the service of nation building? St. Michael is easily recognizable as the heroic victor, but the Devil is depicted as a muscular but otherwise ordinary-looking middle-aged man in short, without the attributes usually associated with his demonic status. Was this a visual reference to a perceived nationalistic evil, cloaked in religious dogma?
I am tempted to make connections between the bitter rivalry between the Barberini and Pamphilij families, as mentioned, and the long-standing political, economic and nationalistic tensions between the Serbs and the Croats, two ethnic groups that coexisted in the former Yugoslavia.
It would appear that paintings take on lives of their own as visual archives documenting ideological narratives open to temporal interpretations. Such is the stuff of art history.
Next: The Case of the A. Y. Jackson in Gitsegukla