Photo-icon of Alexandru Culeac as the Archangel Michael Bessarabia



Photo-icon of Alexandru Culeac as the Archangel Michael Bessarabia


The three images presented here all show variants of the same photo-icon of Alexandru Culeac portrayed as the Archangel Michael. In the first image he appears alone; in the second image, his photograph appears next to that of Inochentie of Balta, and the third image is a reproduction of the photo-icon that appears inside the front cover of a booklet containing Alexandru Culeac's visions entitled "A vision that appeared in 1920". The presence of multiple examples of this photo-icon in the same file reflects the importance of this devotional image to the Archangelist community.
Archangelism formed as a branch of Inochentism under the leadership of the Culeac brothers, the most prominent of whom was Alexandru Culeac (b. 1891). He was considered to be the Archangel Michael returned to earth to battle Satan at the End of Days. The Culeac brothers published and distributed their visionary experiences of divine election and the Final Judgement in the form of brochures and continued the tradition started by followers of Inochentie of Balta of using powerful visual materials to communicate their message, commissioning icons and producing photographs to reinforce their special claims. Alexandru Culeac quickly grasped the power of the image to establish his status as mediator between earthly and heavenly realities and in the image shown here we see how techniques of montage and over-painting have been used to create a striking iconization of Alexandru Culeac. In 1924, the photo-icon was printed on the inside cover page of his booklet of prophetic visions entitled "A vision that appeared in 1920" (image three). In the photo-icon, Alexandru Culeac is pictured with a flaming sword, a shield and a dove at his heart, a sign of his dual identity as both the Holy Spirit and Archangel Michael.
Later, during the Soviet period, media reports and propaganda publications continued to draw attention to the significance of the production and distribution of religious images for the success of the Archangelist sect, whilst also ridiculing the crudity of their production. In Alexandru Culeac’s confession which was published in 1959 under the title "Repentance of a Sinner", he explains how important the icon that “looked just like me” was for his career, for the Archangelist movement and for the promotion of his divine status: "I decided then to make an icon with my image. I commissioned it from a painter who painted the Day of Judgement and the Ascension of the Archangel Michael, as well as my ascension to heaven. The icon was a success. And the Archangel Michael looked just like me. I declared this icon holy. And it started here. People threw themselves down on their knees in front of the icon. They kissed it and prayed to it to heal them from illness. I don’t know if the icon cured anyone but in exchange we received a handsome income. They brought us cereals, money, carpets and cattle." Intended to portray Alexandru Culeac as a religious charlatan who fooled his followers into making offerings to him, this extract from his confession (which may well have been extracted under duress) nevertheless offers us an insight into the power of the image in the Moldovan vernacular worldview.
These photographs come from the National Archive of the Republic of Moldova – Military Tribunal of the 3rd Army Corps ANRM-TMC3A 738-1-6846. In addition to the materials shown here the file contains several photographs of members of the Archangelist community, two pencil sketches and another booklets entitled "The Lord has Spoken [Dumnezeu a vorbit]. Undated. București: Tipografia “Lupta” N. Stoilă.

For related entries see:


Material culture--Religious aspects
Religious sects
Underground literature
Icons, Byzantine
Folk icons
Icons, Romanian


James A. Kapaló


Archiva Națională a Republicii Moldova
ANRM-TMC3A - fond. Tribunalul militar al Corpului III armată, dosar. 738-1-6846


This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme No . 677355




Archiva Națională a Republicii Moldova








ANRM-TMC3A - fond. Tribunalul militar al Corpului III armată, dosar. 738-1-6846


20th century

Bibliographic Citation

James A. Kapaló, "Photo-icon of Alexandru Culeac as the Archangel Michael Bessarabia"