St Michael, the Plague, and Castel Sant’ Angelo

Archangel Michael currently on top of Castel Sant’ Angelo made in 1753 (Public domain)

Gregory the Great’s vision of St Michael is one of the best known and most charming legends of the first plague pandemic. Gregory was elected Pope after the death of his predecessor from the plague in the 590s. In an effort to plead with God for an end of the plague, the new Pope Gregory led a procession, an early version of the Great Litany, around the streets of Rome. As they approached Hadrian’s Tomb, Gregory had a vision of Michael the Archangel atop the tomb overlooking the city, sheathing his sword, a sign that Gregory’s procession had been pleasing to God and that the plague would end. The statue to the right, an 18th century replacement of an earlier statue, commemorates the legend and evokes the archangels protection of Rome. It has become so iconic that it is on the cover of the only academic collected study on the first pandemic, Plague and the End of Antiquity.

As Louis Schwartz explained in his presentation at Kalamazoo last week, there are a number of problems with this story. Although Gregory the Great was a prolific writer and many of his works survive, he never mentions or even alludes to this vision. None of the early hagiographic works on Gregory mention it. Very strange considering how interested the English were in Gregory as their apostle. They came to Rome looking for more information in part on Gregory in the seventh century, and were still in the midst of plague epidemics when his story was forming in England. The earliest life of Gregory the Great was written in early eighth century England. The earliest written version of the vision that Schwartz could find was from the 13th century! The legend can only be documented about a century before the Black Death that must have fixed the legend in the landscape of Rome, along with supporting processions as mitigation against the plague.

For the shrine of St Michael in the upper chamber/roof of Hadrian’s Tomb, the earliest reference Schwartz could find was in Ado of Vienne’s Martyrology (c. 855) in the entry for St Michael.

“…But not much later, in Rome, the venerable pope Boniface dedicated to Holy Michael a church built atop a circular monument, a crypt of marvelous craft and great height. The church is housed within the very summit of this building, thus it is said to reside among the clouds.”

Castel Sant’Angelo guarding over the crossing over the River Tiber via the Pons Aelius (Credit: huwiki, wikipedia creative commons)

Schwartz notes that Ado was known for embellishing numerous saints lives and daily readings with innovative stories and is an unreliable historian. He believes that Ado was influenced by the Liber Pontificalis’ entry for pope Boniface IV (608-615) who built the church to St Mary in the structurally similar Pantheon. Bede describes this church after narrating Bishop Mellitus’ visit to Rome to confer with the pope on the English mission.

“St Boniface was the fourth bishop of Rome after St Gregory. He obtained from the Church of Christ from the Emperor Phocas the gift of the temple at Rome anciently known as the Pantheon because it represented all the gods. After he expelled every abomination from it, he made a church of it dedicated to the holy Mother of God and all the martyrs of Christ, so that when the multitudes of devils had been driven out, it might serve as a shrine for a multitude of saints.” (Bede, HE II:4)

For Schwartz the unreliable Ado of Vienne’s relatively late first reference to the shrine indicates that the shrine was old enough for its origin to have been forgotten. Instead of the time of Boniface IV in the early seventh century, Schwartz favors a later period in the early eighth century when the Lombards ruled over Rome. Michael the Archangel was the national patron saint and protector of the Lombards from the seventh century when a vision of Michael with his flaming sword was credited with the Lombards defensive victory in 663 at Monte Gargano under the warrior Lombard King Grimoald I.

Minted by King Cunincpert of the Lombards (688-700) featuring St Michael.

Schwartz noted that Grimoald’s successors minted coins with St Michael on one side and that between the 9th to 11th century, over 250 place names linked with St Michael have been found in Lombard territory.

Schwartz argued that the shrine of St Michael was built-in such a visible and strategic location during the few short years in the mid eighth century when the Lombards had hegemony over Rome. They immediately succeeded the final loss of Italian territory by the Byzantine Empire. The strategic location of Castel Sant’ Angelo guarding the only bridge over the River Tiber leading to St Peter’s Basilica symbolizing the Lombard’s role in ‘protecting’ Rome. Even after the Lombard’s lost hegemony over Rome, Lombards continued to hold an important place within the  administration of Rome. They had a Schola Langobardum within the Leonine walls built to protect St Peter’s Basilica and surrounding buildings in c. 850.

Unfortunately, for one of the best known legends of the first plague pandemic, there just isn’t any evidence to support it. It now seems likely that the shrine at Castel Sant’Angelo predated the legend of Gregory’s vision perhaps by several centuries.


Louis Schwartz (May 12, 2012) “What Rome Owes to the Lombards: Devotion to Saint Michael in Early Medieval Italy and the Riddle of Castel Saint’Angelo” Session 429, International Congress for Medieval Studies, May 10-13, 2012, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI.

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 731 AD. Judith McClure and Roger Collins, Eds. Oxford U. Press.


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