The history of the world in Christian terms is often portrayed as a conflict between good and evil. That struggle is played out in this small but elaborate sculpture of the archangel Michael battling followers of the Devil. A youthful Saint Michael raises his sword triumphantly while standing atop a pile of writhing demons. A half-sphere forming the sculpture's base provides a striking physical context for this cosmic battle. Shapes of continents subtly painted on its surface, and flames issuing from cracks, symbolize a corrupt earth beneath a war-ravaged heaven.
The story that this sculpture illustrates comes from a passage in the Bible's prophetic last section, The Book of Revelation (12:7-9): "And there was a war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon ... and the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceived the whole world; he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him."
Depictions of Saint Michael striking a dragon, serpent, or semi-human figure first became popular in European art during the Middle Ages, and over time came to symbolize various contemporary concerns. The imagery could serve as an explanation for the origin of sin, symbolize a church struggling against dissidence (such as during the Counter-Reformation), or remind viewers of spiritual remedies to the plague and other earthly scourges.
When first discovered, the sculpture called to mind late seventeenth-century works by artists in Naples, particularly those by sculptor Lorenzo Vaccaro and his circle. However, striking differences in medium and carving style have led scholars to believe it was made by a South German or Austrian artist influenced by Neapolitan art. The medium from which it is made --Solnhofen limestone--is only quarried in the Bavarian Alps. This soft stone enabled the sculptor to carve against the grain and create highly three-dimensional elements, including the angel's skirt and headdress.