Cameo with the Archangel Michael

Date: probably late 14th century

Culture: Byzantine

Medium: Sardonyx

Dimensions: Overall: 1 1/8 x 13/16 x 3/16 in. (2.8 x 2.1 x 0.4 cm)

Classification: Lapidary Work-Sardonyx

Credit Line: The Milton Weil Collection, 1940

Accession Number: 40.20.58


This small oval cameo, which probably depicts the archangel Michael, was once most likely set into a metal frame to be worn suspended from its owner's neck. The cameo almost certainly served an apotropaic function, and Michael's role as the commander of the angelic host, a miraculous healer, and psychopompos (conductor of souls) would make his depiction on a phylactery a logical choice.

The artist has skillfully used the material to contrast the low white relief of the saint against the rich dark red background of the matrix. The archangel is seen standing upon a suppedaneum (footstool). Dressed in full military costume, he grasps his sword sheath with his left hand and holds his sword upright with his right. This emphasis on Michael's martial role is noteworthy, for depictions of the saint more frequently show him wearing a chiton and himation. This choice may indicate the patronage of a member of the Byzantine military aristocracy. Instead of gazing intently at the viewer, the archangel focuses his gaze to the right, which gives an impression of vigilance and prevents a sense of stasis from dominating the composition. The artist has further underscored that the figure is not in absolute repose by positioning the right wing to indicate that Michael has just alighted; the same narrative detail is seen in the figure of the archangel Gabriel in a fourteenth-century icon of the Annunciation, now in Skopje. This attempt at creating a sense of movement and the figure's incongruously wide hips (a feature also seen in steatite carving) both suggest an attribution to the fourteenth century.