At the centre is the Archangel Michael with Gabriel and Raphael standing either side of the half-length figure of Christ blessing from within a lotus-shaped aureole. Behind are Uriel, Selaphiel, Jehudiel, Barachiel, and Jeremiel1 and further beyond the entire ‘Heavenly Host’. All are attired in the traditional rendering for Archangels derived from Byzantine imperial ceremonial costume. Their ribboned hair comes from classical Greek personifications of Victory (Nike). They stand before a background of golden light and beneath their feet are clouds indicating their exalted abode.
Angels are spirit-beings and non-physical. The significance of the image therefore is mystical. According to Saint Gregory of Nyssa writing in the fourth century, ‘the angelic category is asomatos’. Thus, the icon invites us to contemplate the greater divine world that extends beyond our perception in the material world. The Greek word asomatos (a = not, somatos = physical) is usually translated as bodiless. The first icons of the Assembly or Synaxis of the Archangel Michael together with the hierarchy of angelic or cosmic powers date from the eleventh century but the concept was established at the beginning of the fourth century at the Council of Laodicea in the period when Christianity was becoming part the general culture and politics of the Roman Empire.
An early exponent of esoteric Christianity was the sixth century writer Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite2 whose On the Celestial Hierarchies draws on pre-Christian world views to describe the great invisible powers of the Cosmos. The Platonic and Aristotelian ‘Great Chain of Being’ (or ‘Ray of Creation’) becomes, in the writings of Dionysius, the Nine Choirs of Angels whose ranks ascend in the scale that links humanity to God. They are personified, in ascending order, as Angels, Archangels, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Dominions, Thrones, Cherubim and Seraphim. Dionysius brings to theology a Christianised vision of the Neo-Platonist concept of the universe and its hierarchy of spiritual and material beings. He is the prime influence on much of subsequent mystical thinking both in the West (John Scotus Eriugena, Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich) as well as the East (Maximus the Confessor, Gregory Palamas).
The panel’s large size suggests that it may have been displayed on the first order of an iconostasis in a church or chapel dedicated to the Synaxis of the Archangel Michael. The rich bright colours: blue, orange, red, green, gold and dark brown, are typical of the art of the Balkans in the post Byzantine era. The painter has followed the classic iconography developed in Palaiologan Constantinople and in Crete in the fifteenth century (see Fig. 1) but the use of Cyrillic rather than Greek for the inscription points more specifically to Bulgaria; a territory, sometimes an empire, of Slavic ethnicity but Byzantine in culture and religion. We read that ‘Bulgaria … became the main repository of the Christian Slavonic legacy of St Cyril and St Methodius’3 and thus we find ‘Greek’ icons with Slavonic inscriptions.4
Our icon can be compared with an icon of the same subject but later date in the museum of the Tryavna Art School in Bulgaria5 (fig. 2). An inscription indicates the authors: Georgi and Dragan Nedyu and the date, 1735. That example is a less accomplished work than No. 1 but the upturned lower edge of the aureole – an unusual feature in any icon of the subject – suggests a link between the two images.
Fig. 3. Shaded areas indicate restoration. The paintwork on the Archangels is all original, with the exception of the white ribbons and lower wing feathers which have been enhanced later. The top and bottom edges of the panel have been restored with gilding and well matched colours at the time the icon was fitted into its frame. The panel and frame are now in strong and stable condition.