Death and the Archangel: An Icon at Yale
Death and the Archangel: An Icon at Yale

By Georgi R. Parpulov | University of Birmingham


“Tremble, my soul!” (Φρίξον, ψυχή μου), reads a short text at the bottom of this icon. Above it, a prostrate man repeats the words of the Good Thief (Luke 23:42) “Lord, remember me!” (Μνήσθητί μου, Κύριε). This prayer is uttered with the man’s last breath, even as his soul departs in the shape of a small child. His body is depicted frontally, so that we observe it from above, the way the soul itself would see it at the last hour. An armed archangel whom the letter M identifies as Michael plants his feet on the fresh corpse, weighing the man’s good works (τὰ καλὰ ἔργα) against his sins (τὰ κακὰ ἔργα). A hideous creature to the archangel’s left declares that “every sinner belongs to me, the devil” (Ὁ ἁμαρτολὸς ἐμοῦ τοῦ διαβόλου ἐστί). But this fiend is foiled: the man’s good deeds outweigh the bad ones, and a guardian angel (Φ[ύλαξ]) on the opposite, right-hand side receives the redeemed soul with the words “Yet he who repents belongs to God!” (Ἀλλὰ ὁ μετανούμενος εἶναι τοῦ Θεοῦ). In heaven, Jesus opens his arms: “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Σήμερον μετ᾽ ἐμοῦ ἔσει ἐν τῷ παραδείσῳ). His meaning (Luke 23:43) is not obscured by the painter’s imperfect spelling (τὸ παραδίσο).

The style suggests work of the early 18th century, probably by a Cretan artist. Judging from its small size (29.2 × 22.2 cm), the icon was used for private prayer at home, as a personal memento mori. Its back is almost empty, except for a roughly painted cross and for the short inscription IC XC NIKA (“Jesus Christ is victorious”); there are also traces from two transversely nailed slats, now removed, which once restrained the wood from warping. The edges are covered with red as a kind of frame that protects the painter’s work. His gold and tempera pigments are on the whole well preserved. The devil, however, has been defaced in an act of pious vandalism.


This is an icon with a message: it urges us to live virtuously by reminding us that “man is destined to die once and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27), that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), that “the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (ibid.). To be effective, the reminder must be vivid. Vividness is achieved through the use of gold and of contrasting colors and by overloading the composition’s right, symbolically good side. (Note that orientation is determined from within, so that “right” corresponds to Christ’s right hand rather than ours.) The two nearly identical angels’ heads create emphasis by repetition; Michael’s raised sword, the forearms of the guardian angel, and the upright anthropomorphic soul form parallel lines; the rich drapery of the angels’ clothing contrasts with the flaccid flesh of the naked devil. Besides being emphatic, the icon’s message is focused (“Tremble, my soul!”, “Lord, remember me!”, “Today you will be with me in paradise”): I am witnessing not another man’s death but my own. The architectural background itself draws me “into” the image by means of several doorways and receding perspective.

The painter’s use of pictorial space and of visual parallel/contrast as rhetorical devices, as well as his rather naturalistic shading (most prominent in the clouds, in the drapery, and in Michael’s breastplate), recall West-European art. The Baroque style reached many Greek regions through Venice, which ruled Crete until 1669 and held the Ioanian Islands up to 1797 (see Our Lady Skopiotissa). But Italian painting contains no direct parallels for the scene depicted in our icon. Its central motif seems to have been invented by a Greek artist named Antonios Mitaras, whose sole surviving work also shows Archangel Michael receiving the soul of a dying man and also carries the exhortation “Tremble, my soul, at the things you behold!” (Φρίξον, ψυχή μου, τὰ ὁρώμενα). Nothing is known about Mitaras’s biography, but his manner clearly predates that of the anonymous Yale painter.

Further Reading

Chatzidakis, Manolis. Icônes de Saint-Georges des Grecs et de la collection de l’Institut. Venice: Pozza, 1962.

Cat. 60 (p. 91) in this book is an icon by Antonios Mitaras that Chatzidakis dates to the 17th century. It is the closest iconographic precedent for the Yale panel.

Brilliant, Virginia. “Envisaging the Particular Judgment in Late-Medieval Italy.” Speculum 84 (2009): 314–346.

On pp. 328–332.

Brilliant analyses the iconography of Archangel Michael weighing the good and bad deeds of the deceased.

Chatzedake, Nano and Katerine, Elena. "Η εικόνα του αρχαγγέλου Μιχαήλ με δώδεκα σκηνές του κύκλου του στην Καλαμάτα: Ένα άγνωστο έργο του Γεωργίου Κλόντζα." Δελτίον της Χριστιανικής Αρχαιολογικής Εταιρίας IV.26 (2005): 241–262.

Attributed to a well-known Cretan artist of the late 16th century, the icon published in this article is similar to the Yale one. On pp. 246–250, the authors discuss its iconography.

Phillips Perry, Mary. “On the Psychostasis in Christian Art.” Burlington Magazine 22 (1912): 94–105 and 208–218.

Phillips Perry discusses a number of images where Archangel Michael holds the scales of judgment. The Yale icon resembles some late Gothic works from France, Catalonia, and Germany, and a Baroque print from the Netherlands. Without bespeaking direct influence, such parallels are illuminating.

Stichel, Rainer. Studien zum Verhältnis von Text und Bild spät- und nachbyzantinischer Vergänglichkeitsdarstellungen. Vienna: Böhlau, 1971.

Stichel examines the depictions of death in late Byzantine and post-Byzantine art against their religious background.

Θύρα τῆς μετανοίας, ἤτοι Βίβλος κατανυκτικὴ καὶ ψυχωφελεστάτη περιέχουσα τὰ τέσσαρα ἔσχατα τοῦ ἀνθρώπου· θάνατον, κρίσιν, ᾅδην καὶ παράδεισον, δι᾽ ὧν γίνεται ἡ θαυμαστὴ μεταμόρφωσις τοῦ παλαιοῦ ἀνθρώπου καὶ τοῦ νέου ἡ γέννησις. Venice: Nikolaos Glykes, 1795.

Entitled Gate of Penitence, this devotional manual prescribes remembrance of death as a form of Christian piety. The book was translated from Latin by the physician John Komnenos Molyvdos (1657–1719).

This contribution was sponsored by the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture at Hellenic College Holy Cross.


Georgi R. Parpulov, "Death and the Archangel: An Icon at Yale," Mapping Eastern Europe, eds. M. A. Rossi and A. I. Sullivan, accessed June 3, 2023,