Have you ever been in line at the post office while they weighed up a package for shipment? Or stood at a meat counter as the scales added up the weight of your ground meat?
Not a time when most of us would think of angels, much less an archangel, right?
And yet St. Michael is the patron of all those who use scales.
What? The angel with the sword and battle armor? At a meat counter?
Yes, that same archangel, the one whose feast day – along with the other archangels – is celebrated Sept. 22.
Michael is indeed the patron of warriors and protectors, like police officers, which is why he is often depicted in battle gear. But he is also said to be the angel who is present at the judgment of souls.
This is why he is sometimes shown in religious art holding
a scale. Besides being
“our defender in battle,” as the prayer says, Michael is also honored as the “weigher of souls.”
Many medieval paintings, like the altarpiece shown on the right from the French 15th century, show Michael holding a large scale. The artistic tradition is meant to show that we all face judgment — a weighing of the good and bad of our lives — at the end of our earthly existence. Since St. Michael does battle with the forces of evil, he is logically the protector of souls as they pass from life to death, often thought of as a time of danger. The tradition of him placing souls into a scale developed in the Middle Ages, a time when angels were popular figures in art and literature.
We can see some of Michael’s specific roles defined in parts of the multi-phrased Litany of St. Michael, which includes these petitions:
- St. Michael, light and confidence of souls at their death, (pray for us);
- “… St. Michael, herald of the everlasting judgment (pray for us);
- “St. Michael, consoler of souls detained in purgatory (pray for us); and
- “St. Michael, who receives the souls of the elect after death (pray for us).”
While Michael is only mentioned a few times in the Bible, best remembered as the defender of the Jewish people and as battling in heaven against the forces of Satan, he is also briefly mentioned as protecting the dead in the Letter of St. Jude (1:9). In that letter, the author notes that the angel fought with Satan over the body of Moses. This refers to an ancient Jewish tradition, which early Christian writers also referenced, that Michael hid the body of Moses — and also of Eve — from Satan.
From this tradition naturally came the idea that Michael protected all the righteous dead from Satan.
As the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, tradition eventually gave Michael four roles:
- Warrior against Satan
- Rescuer of souls at the hour of death
- Champion of God’s people
- And the one who calls souls to judgment.
This final role, of Michael as the one calling the dead to judgment, led naturally to the archangel’s role of participating in that judgment of the soul. As the Gospel of Matthew tells us, “the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay everyone according to his conduct” (Mt 16 27).
Overall devotion to St. Michael seems to have begun in the East. Constantine the Great built a sanctuary to this prince of the archangels in Constantinople in the fourth century. This is why many early icons of St. Michael depict him garbed in Eastern- style robes. This continues to this day, including with many modern Russian icons.
Sometimes Russian icons show the archangel as “the guide to the dead.” This image shows Michael holding a scale to weigh good and bad deeds. Some of the icons even contain devils trying to tip the scales and dump out the souls.
In the West, one of the oldest similar representations of Michael can be found in the underground cave in Sanctuary of Monte Sant’Angelo in Puglia, Italy, dating to the fourth century. From that time on through the Middle Ages, the Western world began to see St. Michael not only as a warrior angel, but then a protector and finally as a protector of souls.
This was especially true in the Holy Roman Empire around the turn of the first millennium, when people feared the world would end. St. Michael was then believed to not only hold the scales of justice, but also to watch over holy souls.
Many years later, in the 18th century, St. Alphonsus Liguori also wrote about Michael protecting dying Christians “in their last combat with the devils.”
One final place to note is Mont Saint-Michel in France, dating to the eighth century. This shrine sits out a bit into the ocean, a rather difficult place to reach. Pilgrims have had to cover mudflats and climb the steep cliff to reach the sanctuary. Yet pilgrims, from centuries past to today, brave the passage in order to seek the favor of the archangel during their own “pesée des âmes” (“the weighing of souls”).
So the next time you stand on a scale, maybe ask Michael — as does the traditional St. Michael prayer — to “be our protector against the wickedness and snares of the devil…”
Sources: The Catholic Encyclopedia; The New Jerome Biblical Dictionary; Learnreligions.com; Holyart.com; “St. Michael Strength of God;” “The Angels;” catholicculture.com; aleteia.org; catholictradition.org; Princeton.edu; Russianicons.com; “‘Neath St. Michael’s Shield;” Palaisdurosaire.com; EWTN.com; and catholicrc.org