St Michael overcoming Satan St Michael overcoming Satan

St Michael Overcoming Satan, seen from two angles. John Flaxman (1755-1826). Exhibited 1822. Plaster. 3440 mm high. Wilkins Building, University College, London. Photographs (2007), commentary and formatting by Jacqueline Banerjee. Photographs by courtesy of UCL Art Collections, University College London. [Click on the images to enlarge them.]

Detail, showing Satan's head.

This powerful work is the model for the marble sculpture displayed at Lord Egremont's house at Petworth, where it an still be seen in the North Gallery. According to the UCL Arts Museum site, Richard Westmacott considered the work to be "the most distinguished proof of Flaxman’s powers of heroic composition." As explained on this site, it was based on Raphael’s painting of 1518, now in the Louvre, "portraying the archangel as a graceful youth, serene and calm as he lifts his spear ready to strike his foe, pinned under his left foot."

The sculpture is the central focus of the Flaxman Gallery, just beside the college's main library. The various plaster casts by Flaxman here were the result of the Denman Gift of Flaxman’s work to UCL in 1847, followed by a public appeal (to which Prince Albert himself donated) to have the casts restored and appropriately displayed. Ben Read calls this "the prime example of assembling a sculptor's models for preservation," in England at least (32). Its absence from the gallery, when it was moved to the portico, and later still to the Victoria and Albert Museum, saved the work from damage during World War II, but it was returned in 1994, and, in 2012, it was placed on a glass plinth, allowing more natural light to filter through from the oculus above to the floor below.

Plaster casts played a major role in the sculptor's workshop at the time when Flaxman was working, and this collection gives a wonderful opportunity for studying them. A recent issue of the Sculpture Journal is entirely devoted to the material and its sources as well as the sculptor's work with it, and the results. There, Ekhart Marchand tells us that night-time guided tours of plaster collections, at least in Europe, were "[c]ommon in the early nineteenth century," when the cast would seem to come to life "as the torches' strong and flickering light moved across the extensive even surfaces of the white plaster" (405).

Besides being breathtaking in itself, even in the day, the display in this part of the Wilkins Building links beautifully with the neo-classical frontage and the dome, giving the building as a whole a great air of distinction.

Related Material


Marchand, Ekhart. "Aby Warburg on Plaster Casts." Sculpture Journal 28/3 (2019): 397-405.

Read, Ben. Victorian Sculpture. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1982.

"St. Michael overcoming Satan." UCL Arts Museum. Web. 19 July 2020.

UCL Flaxman and Octagon galleries unveiled. Youtube: UCL News. Web. 19 July 2020.

Last modified 19 July 20207