Saint Michael expelling Lucifer and the Rebel Angels was a subject that found new life during the Counter-Reformation and was used in the 17th century to symbolise the triumph of the Catholic Church in the form of Saint Michael, over the Protestants. This episode of the archangel saint, a figure referred to in the Book of Daniel, is to be found in the Revelation of Saint John. This text narrates the battle in the sky between Saint Michael and his angels and the Devil with his legions of rebel angels. In the end “that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan” was cast out of Heaven onto the earth, as were his rebel angels.
Rubens depicted this subject on a number of occasions starting in his Italian period. One of the earliest known examples is a sheet of sketches with figures that seem to illustrate this biblical text. Among the surviving oils that can be related to the present work are the one in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, commissioned by Pfalzgraf Wolfgang-Wilhelm von Pfalz-Neuburg and completed in 1622, and an oil sketch in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. The latter is all that remains of the painting for the ceiling of the church of San Carlo Borromeo in Antwerp, destroyed by fire in 1718. Finally, another work that has been related to the present canvas is a now lost but is known through a print of 1621 by Lucas Vorsterman. It has been dated to the artist’s early years, around 1615–16.
The present painting probably belonged to Gilles-Luc Schamp in the 18th century, passing by inheritance or acquisition to other members of his family. In 1921 it was auctioned anonymously in Paris and was later with the Haberstock gallery in Berlin, from where it was acquired for the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection in 1928.
Since its acquisition the painting appeared in the Collection’s catalogues as an autograph work by Rubens until 1990. In 1963 Burchard had already suggested that it involved workshop participation and his opinions were recorded by Ebbinge-Wubben in the latter’s entry on the painting in the 1969 catalogue of the Collection. When he studied the work Gaskell detected a certain weakness in the line and modelling, particularly in the anatomy of the figures such as Lucifer. This led him to propose it as a workshop production. The date of the canvas has also been the subject of debate: Ebbinge-Wubben placed it in the mid-1630s, comparing its technique with that seen in the preliminary sketches for the Torre de la Parada. This suggestion was accepted by Vlieghe but was rejected by Gaskell, who considered it unconvincing.