Last week, I came across a tweet expressing concern at racism in the star worn by those admitted to the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George, particularly those holding the rank of Knight Commander, distinguished by the post-nominal of KCMG. That’s a surprising claim, as this honour is often awarded to diplomats from around the Commonwealth, and currently includes the Guyanese politician Sir Shridath Surendranath Ramphal, the New Guinean politician Sir Michael Thomas Somare and the former Governor-General of Saint Lucia Dame Calliopa Pearlette Louisy, who would surely have objected to anything racist.
So I took a look at the image in the star. At first glimpse, those fears appeared well-founded, but as I read the image more carefully it dawned on me that this is all an unfortunate misinterpretation. This article looks at this image, and why I don’t think it has anything to do with race or racism, and if anything might reflect misogyny instead.
The Star worn by a Knight Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) at first sight shows a white man crushing the head of a Black man. Except those aren’t men at all, but have bright green wings. In fact, the standing figure is the Archangel Saint Michael, and the head he is crushing is that of Satan.
This is seen better in the Star of a Knight or Dame Grand Cross of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George, which is rather larger and better-detailed.
The Biblical reference for this is at the start of Revelation chapter 20: “And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, and cast him into the bottomless pit”.
Perhaps the best-known painting of this relatively popular theme is Guido Reni’s Archangel Michael Tramples Satan from about 1630-35, which may have been the visual reference for the star designs for the Order of St Michael and St George. Saint Michael’s left foot rests on the head of Satan as his left hand holds onto the devil’s chains. Although both figures have dark wings, the skin tones of the Archangel are clearly lighter than those of Satan, but there are no other features which might suggest that the latter is Black, or even non-European.
Some paintings of this theme do give Satan a more unusual appearance. The Archangel Saint Michael, painted by an unknown Bolivian artist in 1708, shows him in a caricature, for example. But these are hardly likely to have been known to the designer of the stars.
Another well-known and accessible account of this story is Eugène Delacroix’s magnificent fresco of St Michael Defeats the Devil (1861) in Saint-Sulpice church in Paris, but that is quite different from the images seen in the stars.
Bonifazio Veronese’s St Michael Vanquishing the Devil from 1530 is an unlikely candidate as source. It shows a fire-breathing humanoid with more draconian wings, which may have descended from older images in which the Devil (with a definite article) is shown as a straight dragon. This is not the great Paolo Veronese, but a painter in Venice whose work was influential on Tintoretto.
So too William Blake’s The Angel Michael Binding Satan from about 1805.
Colour-coding figures has a very long tradition in visual art.
This detail from Giotto’s fresco of The Last Judgment in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy, was painted in 1306. It follows the early convention that its humanoid demons are colour-coded blue or brown, and their victims are more fleshy in tone and colour.
This is also clear in Hans Memling’s Last Judgment triptych, from 1467-1471, where tormenting devils are dark brown.
This visual distinction extends to more recent paintings, including Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare from 1781. The daemonic incubus seen squatting on the torso of a young woman is swarthy in colour compared to the pallor of his victim.
Ary Scheffer used clear colour coding in his Temptation of Christ, from 1854, where the fallen angel is trying to get Christ to jump from a pinnacle so that he could rely on angels to break his fall.
Looking back over three millenia to well-preserved paintings from ancient Egypt, there’s good evidence that they too used colour-coding.
Skin and garment tones and colours in Weighing of the Heart from the Book of the Dead of Ani from about 1300 BCE suggest an elaborate coding system. Other paintings are simpler, in showing women as pale or white, and men as having red ochre flesh.
Similar coding appears in Etruscan tomb paintings: in this copy of a fresco from the François Tomb, which has been dated to about 340 BCE, the two gods are shown as being fair-skinned, and the Etruscans as red as the ancient Egyptians.
In some cases, colour-coding may be based on gender. Lawrence Alma-Tadema, who researched his motifs thoroughly, follows this in his painting of The Finding of Moses (1904-05). With the exception of the infant Moses, in his crib, every woman in this painting has pale whitish skin, and every man is significantly darker, although there are no indications that these are intended to be Black Africans.
Reading images can be far harder than reading words. There’s no visual dictionary, no universal vocabulary. Before reaching any conclusions – particularly on such a sensitive subject as racism – it’s important to do your research.
In this case, the scene depicted in the stars of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George is rooted in the long history of visual art, extending back more than three thousand years. Whilst it might originate in the longstanding cross-cultural dichotomy between dark/evil and light/good, it has nothing to do with nineteenth century British colonialism, and everything to do with traditional depictions of Satan.