(b. 1634, Napoli, d. 1705, Napoli)

The Fall of the Rebel Angels

Oil on canvas, 419 x 283 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The fall of the rebel angels is the greatest single theme of the Counter-Reformation. It is a theme that allowed a church in conflict to present its propaganda in the form of its struggle against all forms of heresy. At the same time, the theme of the struggling angel also symbolized the triumph of light over the rebellion of the powers of darkness - giving the painter an opportunity to create a chiaroscuro charged with meaning, in which heaven and hell, the incense of the blessed and the brimstone of the damned are contrasted in an extremely confined space, creating an arc of tension within which the knight-like angel spreads his broad wings and wields his sword in a sweeping gesture of victory.

Giordano sets the scene with relatively few figures compared to, say, Rubens' Great Last Judgment. Against a background of deep golden light, the archangel balances with an almost balletic movement on the heavy breast of Lucifer, entangled amidst a group of his servants, his angular and batlike wings cutting through the hazy sfumato of the hellfire. What appears at first glance to be so dramatic is not in fact the depiction of a struggle as such. Michael is not attacking the figures from hell with his sword, but is holding it aloft like a sign, as though his mere appearance were enough to cast Satan and his followers into eternal damnation.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.