Angelic upstarts: war in heaven
This dizzying painting by Frans Floris sweeps you up in the biblical battle between good and evil. It’s a dense tangle of arms, legs, wings and tails. At the top, the angels loyal to God do battle with the Archangel Michael as their captain. Together, they chase the disloyal angels and demons out of heaven. You can recognize the latter from their frightening, bestial features. Curved talons, genitals like an eagle’s head, clawing hands, the head of a wild boar, a grinning goat. Beneath the feet of the guardian angel Michael, you can see Satan, a red dragon with seven crowned heads.
Rebel angels with an eye for detail
Pectoral and trapezius muscles, pelvises and collarbones: Frans Floris knew their exact position and how they were connected. He incorporated subtle details amongst the writhing bodies, such as the Woman of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation. You can find her in the small gap on the left, near the flaming torch clutched by one of the fallen angels. She stands on a crescent moon, dressed with the sun and crowned with 12 stars. The demonic dragon threatens her, while angels save her child and guide it to heaven. An eagle gives her two wings so she can escape to the desert. In the bottom left, you can see a bee. A symbol for Lucifer in the Bible?
Triptych commissioned by a militia guild
The Fall of the Rebel Angels was the central panel of a triptych. It is the most famous work of Frans Floris, who painted it for the Antwerp fencer’s guild: one of the city’s militias, responsible for public security. The altarpiece hung in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, above the guild’s altar. Like every other guild or corporation, the fencers had a patron saint, in this case the Archangel Michael.
The rebel angels spared
The side-panels of the altarpiece were lost during the wave of iconoclastic violence in 1566. Fortunately, the central part was spared. It was given a new surround in 1670, in keeping with the tastes of the time. Artus Quellinus the Younger and Norbertus van den Eynde drew the design. They decorated the architectural portico with monumental sculptures.
Influence of Michelangelo, Raphael and Dürer
Frans Floris was a ‘Romanist’, one of the generation of artists from the 16th century who travelled to Italy. During his stay in Rome, Floris was influenced by the Italian Renaissance art of Michelangelo and Raphael. The brilliant composition with its writhing bodies recalls Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. The woman and the dragon, meanwhile, display similarities with the visual language of the German artist Albrecht Dürer.
Fall of the Rebel Angels: Bruegel too
In 1562, Pieter Bruegel the Elder also painted the theme of the angels’ rebellion. His work is now in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels.