As early as the first century, Saint Paul warned the Christians of Colosse, in the south-west of present-day Turkey, against “those who delight in the worship of angels” (Col 2, 18), thus testifying that the angels were already very (too) venerated in the first Christian communities of Phrygia.
The apostle was listened to little, it seems, since three centuries later, the council of Laodicea, a city in the same region, condemned as “idolatrous” the veneration for angels. This did not prevent a legend from circulating in the 5th century, according to which Saint Michael caused a miraculous spring to gush forth in Chônai, on the very site of the ancient city of Colosse, curing a mute young girl. An oratory was built there in honor of the archangel and was the subject of pilgrimages.
By the same time, veneration for Michael had spread to other parts of Asia Minor, as well as to Egypt. Along the Nile, first, as evidenced by Didyme the Blind (313-398) and Coptic legends from the 4th century: “Saint Michael was venerated there as an angel of the people, guide of souls, exorcist, protector of river waters, navigators and peasants”, explains Giorgio Otranto (1), historian of Christianity. “Elsewhere in Egypt, he continues, the archangel was brought into close contact with the god of the dead, Osiris, and his function as a psychopomp, warrior, doctor and helper of parturients was underlined. »
In Constantinople, the new capital of the empire, Constantine (v. 272-337) had a sanctuary rebuilt, previously dedicated to Vesta, for Saint Michael, who would have appeared to him in 312 and 314. This called Michaelion, explains Anne Bernet ( 2), journalist and historian, is still today “a shrine so venerated that the Orthodox still celebrate its dedication on June 8”. In the first decades of the 8th century, before the beginning of the iconoclastic period, the city and its region had 16 places of worship to the Archangel, often erected on ancient sanctuaries linked to Apollo. In the 15th century, there were 35 of them.
In Syria, the Michael cult developed from the 5th century. Nevertheless, Severus, patriarch of Antioch (512-538), asked that we stop representing angels with crown and globe, which suggest “universal power”, according to Giorgio Otranto. He proposed that the sanctification of churches dedicated to their worship should be “guaranteed” by the presence of relics of martyrs. “It is for this reason that in the East the cult of the latter has often been associated with that of angels and has contributed to spreading their devotion”, continues the historian.
In Palestine, on the other hand, apart from Jerusalem and Mount Carmel, Michel had little success. Similarly, in Greece, there are few traces of it at this time. However, the monastery of Panormitis (see pages 18-19 and opposite), whose construction could date back to the 5th century, is of particular importance.
Despite the Byzantine iconoclastic crisis in the 8th century, which saw the destruction of certain sanctuaries and many icons dedicated to Michael, the cult of angels and their leader remained very much alive in the Orthodox world. As the hieromonk Macarius of the monastery of Simonos Petra on Mount Athos (3) reminds us, “testimonies of this presence of angels in our lives have recently been given to us by saints such as Father Ephrem of Katounakia (died in 1988 and canonized in 2019, Ed), Father Dimitri Gagastathis (died in 1975, Ed) or Father Tikhon, the Russian ascetic from Kapsala (died in 1971, Ed) who literally lived in the presence of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, and used to they were celebrating the Divine Liturgy to see them assisting them in the celebration”.