What’s Saint Michael Doing Up There?

If today weren’t Sunday, we’d be celebrating the feast of the Archangels. Here in Rome, there’s an entire castle named after one of them: Castel Sant’Angelo got its name from Saint Michael, after an extraordinary event that happened here over 1400 years ago.

Castel Sant'Angelo 1

During the 6th century, the Italian peninsula was being decimated by plague, which in some regions is said to have killed one-third of the population. Pope Pelagius II himself was one of its victims, dying in the year 590. He was succeeded by Pope Gregory I, who would later be known as Saint Gregory the Great.

Gregory couldn’t do anything to stop the plague, of course; but he know that God could. So the Pope organized a procession through the streets of Rome, reciting public prayers and hymns beseeching God to end the spread of this horrible disease.

Castel Sant'Angelo 2When the procession approached the monumental mausoleum of Hadrian, Gregory and everyone else saw a wonderful thing. Hovering high over the mausoleum, the warrior archangel Saint Michael was seen holding a sword, which he put into its sheath. At that moment, Pope Gregory knew that their prayers had been answered–and the plague was reported to have ceased spreading at that very moment.

This is why Hadrian’s mausoleum was renamed Castel Sant’Angelo, or Castle of the Holy Angel. For centuries, a much-larger-than-life statue of Saint Michael sheathing his sword has stood atop the castle to commemorate this event in history. The current bronze statue was erected here in 1753, replacing a much older and rather battered marble-and-bronze image that can be seen today in one of the castle’s courtyards.

How many tourists come to Rome and gawk at Castel Sant’Angelo, not understanding the significance of either its name or the gigantic statue that stands on top! But if you tour the city with us, you’ll go home with a thorough understanding of, and appreciation for, Rome’s monuments and the historical events that inspired them.