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Object details

The Fall of the Rebel Angels
303 × 220 cm
Inventory number: 
lower right: FF IV. ET. FA/ 1554

More about this work

The archangel Michael is raising his sword at top centre in this panel. He and his companions are driving out of heaven a horde of demons led by a seven-headed dragon. The painting is divided into two registers. The top is filled with angels. At the bottom are monstrous hybrid beings with snakes for hair or pig’s heads. The subject is a battle between good and evil.

St Michael was the patron saint of the fencers, one of the six armed guilds of Antwerp. Most of their members were well-to-do citizens who were allowed to bear arms. The guilds helped the city authorities keep order and fight fires. In addition to the fencers there were two crossbow guilds, two archers’ guilds and one of harquebusiers, who were armed with a predecessor of the musket. At the beginning of the 16th century they all carried a firearm while they were on duty. The other weapon was part of their equipment for ceremonial occasions, such as contests and processions. Each guild had an altar in the Church of Our Lady, the largest church in the city, which became the cathedral of the Bishopric of Antwerp in the course of the 16th century. It was in this prestigious location that they proclaimed their status with a display of spectacular altarpieces.

The fencers had their altarpiece painted by Frans Floris. Although nowadays he is not as well-known as his contemporary Pieter Bruegel the Elder, he was one of the leading painters of the Low Countries in his day. He was a scholarly artist with a large workshop that produced mythological works as well as altarpieces. In that respect he was a forerunner of the 17th-century Peter Paul Rubens. Floris completed his altarpiece for the fencers in 1554, and it enhanced his reputation even further.

For a long time The fall of the rebel angels was regarded as a classic example of Romanism, art of the Low Countries that was inspired by the Italian Renaissance. The angels in the top register do indeed recall paintings by Raphael and Michelangelo. Floris studied their work and the art of classical antiquity during his years of training in Italy (1541/1542-1545). Although his style clearly alludes to Renaissance art, he does far more than simply imitate. This Fall of the rebel angels also contains elements from the northern tradition. The imaginary creatures, for example, are inspired by the work of Hieronymus Bosch, while the seven-headed dragon is based on a print by Albrecht Dürer.

The Iconoclasm broke out in Antwerp on the evening of 20 August 1566. A mob of 200 Calvinists forced their way into the Church of Our Lady and began smashing paintings and statues to pieces. Then and in the days that followed there was a mass destruction of church art. This altarpiece was one of the few religious works from before 1566 that survived.

The fate of the painting in the years that followed illustrates the turbulent history of 16th-century Antwerp, plagued as it was by wars of religion. There was a brief period of freedom of religion in 1566 after the Iconoclasm, and at that time the painting was probably stored in the fencers’ guildhall. In 1567 the Duke of Alva arrived to restore order in the Netherlands. Protestantism was strictly forbidden, and it was recommended that the churches be redecorated. The fencers then reinstalled a painting on their altar, probably this Fall of the rebel angels. In 1576 the Spanish Fury broke out, whereupon the Netherlands turned against the Spanish crown and Antwerp became a Calvinist republic. In 1581 the city authorities ordered that all images were to be removed from the churches and sold (the Quiet Iconoclasm). The fencers, though, kept their altarpiece in their guildhall. In 1585 the Spanish recaptured Antwerp and ordered the churches to ‘filled’ once again, which is how The fall of the rebel angels reappeared on the fencers’ altar.

This painting was originally part of a triptych, with the dean of the guild on one wing and probably a second portrait on the other. It is not clear when the wings were removed. The centre panel was first referred to as a single work when the fencers ordered the redecoration of the altar between 1640 and 1660. The fall of the rebel angels remained in the cathedral until 1794, when the French confiscated it for the Musée Central in Paris. It entered the KMSKA after its restitution in 1815.

Acquisition history

Restoration sponsored by the Flemish Government, 2021
recuperation from: Frankrijk, 1815

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