Under the microscope: The Order of St Michael and St George explained


The award has drawn controversy prompting some to call for it’s removal

Why the controversy

The Order of St Michael and St George has drawn controversy this week over the imagery on the award. The medal features the image of a white angel standing on the neck of a chained wing beast who is depicted as being black. Criticism comes in light of the murder of George Floyd and wider dialogue regarding Britain and its commemoration of its colonial legacy. The questionable depiction of Satan alongside his subjugation by a white angel has led some to question the overt remnants of racism within British modern day Britain.

Is the order new

The Order itself is not new. It was first founded in April 1818 by the Prince Regent, later King George IV while he was acting as regent for his father, King George III. It was then named after the military saints st.George and st.Michael. When the Ionian Islands, now part of Greece, had been placed under 'British protection' (which is a fancy way of saying annexed), the Prince Regent (later George IV) instituted The Order in 1818 to recognise distinguished citizens of the islands, and of Malta. The islands were annexed by Britain after defeating French troops off the various islands between 1809-1814 and would finally fall under British rule with the signing of an armistice in April 1814. This armistice obliged the French, who occupied the Island at the time, to evacuate the final Island of Corfu. This preceded the treaty of Paris, signed 30 May 1814 which signalled the end of the war between the French and the Sixth Coalition. The Order was initially awarded to those occupying high positions in this region and Malta. As the Ionian Islands became part of Greece toward the of the 19th century, the award expanded to 'reward distinguished service in British territories' as well as recognising foreign diplomats and those who had achieved high service within the commonwealth.

The Order was instituted with three classes, in descending order these are:

Knight Grand Cross or Dame Grand Cross (GCMG)

Knight Commander (KCMG) or Dame Commander (DCMG)

Companion (CMG)

What inspired the design

The depiction itself has its roots in the high renaissance and baroque eras. The first dates back to 1505. The high renaissance artist Raphael first painted St Micheal vanquishing Satan on the back of a draughtboard before revisiting it a decade later after being commissioned to do so at the behest of Pope Leo X. The second would be the Guido Reni painting more than a century later in 1636. This time, it was commissioned by the barberini family for the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini.

But if it’s just an image conquering Satan that should be fine, right?

Yes it is, but it's the depiction of a black Satan which has led to the controversy, specifically how it has been identified as another example of the overt remnants of Britain's colonial legacy being commemorated. What makes this issue such an oddity is the recipients of the Order. A notable number of the recipients of the award are in fact black with recipients ranging from Papa New Guinea to Barbados. Additional confusion comes from the fact that the colour of of Satan is itself not entirely consistent having historically ranged from white, to supposedly even green.

The events of the previous month from the death of George Floyd to the spread of the black lives matter movement (spread because the movement despite gaining recent popularity is not new) have renewed national dialogue of Britain's relationship with race, how this relationship is presented and how deeply entrenched it may be.

So what next?

Honestly, we don't know. Monday’s events which saw an eruption of online debate drew attention to the matter but there has been no official response. The calls have largely focused on the need to redesign the order. The debate on Monday may simply be another reminder of the significance of imagery and iconography within our society but given the current climate nothing can be ruled out

Mayowa Ayodele

EDIT: 11:02 25/06/20 - Since the writing of this article, it has been reported that Jamaica is to request a redesign of the badge worn by Governors General since independence. This is so as to remove the imagery depicting St Michael standing on the neck of a chained Black man portrayed as a devil.