SPEAK OF THE DEVIL:
A BRIEF LOOK AT THE HISTORY AND ORIGINS OF
ICONOGRAPHY OF THE DEVIL FROM ANTIQUITY TO THE RENAISSANCE
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The story of the Devil’s iconography is tedious. There is no biblical passage that gives a succinct description of what Satan looks like. When he does appear, little more is said than a tertiary note that he has shown up and instigated some action. With the rise of the Church in the 4th century, no clear definition of what Lucifer looked like was ever established and early artists and scholars were forced to look for source materials that helped them to shape the image of Satan over hundreds of years. Folklore and literature kept the Devil’s presence concurrent with the changing times and the folktales and legends themselves varied greatly from culture to culture. The journey to better understand how Satan’s image came to be is strange, for as much as has been made of the Devil in the lives of humanity, very little about his character has been established.
SPEAK OF THE DEVIL: A BRIEF LOOK AT THE
HISTORY AND ORIGINS OF ICONOGRAPHY
OF THE DEVIL
The Devil has been a tool to instruct and terrify from the earliest traces of the Christian religion. The Devil has always been that phantom fear that plagues humanity, entices with sweet temptations, slanders with shadowy lies, and terrifies with unfathomable rage. The Devil was responsible for Original Sin in the Garden of Eden, tempting Christ in the desert, casting bad fortunes onto Job in the Old Testament, and trumpeting the impending doom of the Apocalypse. His figure and his powers of seductive persuasion are well known by people of all ages, for the presence of the Devil can traverse oceans of time. It is no wonder then that his image, in all its terrible fury or angelic persuasiveness, should have a rich history in Western art. However, for all the fear and trepidation that surrounds such an instrumental figure in the primary canon of Christianity, his image has been hard to classify due to a serious lack of description of the Fiend in biblical texts. There is no convenient biblical passage that gives anything more than the most rudimentary of physical descriptions of the Devil, and many cases merely indicate what shapes he can assume without any clear image of what this enigmatic creature really looks like. With so little to work with, how did European artists conceive of his likeness in the first place? What were the sources of his imagery in medieval art? Like the treacherous journey Dante undertook in his harrowing descent into hell, so too is the search for the Devil’s artistic genesis just as storied, just as harrowing, and just as difficult to unveil. And like those lost souls in Plato’s allegorical cave, so too shall this journey attempt to bring, willingly or not, the light of understanding to just who the Devil is and where his likeness came from.
Contrary to what many believe, the origin of the Devil’s artistic features cannot be initially traced from biblical sources, but from the old religions of
The significance of such a study is readily apparent to any student of either history or art. The Devil has been a fixed constant in the minds of Christians for eons. This figure has become the focal point for numerous allegories, fables, tales, songs, legal battles, and heresies. The history of the Devil is important to know for anyone who calls himself/herself a Christian, Jew, historian, or art lover. Such a study will likely not be met without some controversy, as the Devil himself, the Lord of Lies, propagates controversy. To define the how and why the Devil’s likeness came about is to tread backwards in time to pagan religions, and to understand some of the more infamous heresies of the past.
What this study will do is look back on the ancient past and come to know various gods of various dead religions and see how some of their traits and characteristics were incorporated into that of Satan. It will look at the various powers and abilities attributed to the Devil through art, literature, and folktale. It will show how limited the Old and New Testaments really are in providing a clear description of what Satan looks like. It will attempt to wrestle afresh with notions of how literature and folklore influenced the Western concept of the Devil in regards to his appearance, clothing, forms, disguises, powers, and symbolism. This study will then look at how the Devil was rendered in art by various painters and sculptors who themselves were influenced by the same stories and images handed down to them from the earliest desert gods and fantastical Germanic folk tales. The study will draw heavily on both electronic and printed sources and will include a number of black and white and color reproductions of art pieces which show how the various elements of the Devil’s shape, color, clothing, and other traits were captured by artists in their paintings, graphic arts, and sculptures. It will serve to reconcile Christian dogma with its own classical and pagan roots by establishing clear links between the Devil and pagan gods and symbols. Only by understanding how various secular forces influenced and worked within the confines of both early and medieval Christianity can a clear picture of the Devil can be finally rendered. This study will not, however, cover the Devil’s likeness in the arts after the Renaissance. This study will also not rely solely on scripture or religious texts to define what the Devil is and what he looks like. The study is limited to sources that are still in print, affordable, and written in English.
Sources that were used were culled from extensive searches of internet web pages and search engines as well as texts recommended by the mentor of the this project. Additional texts have been perused on the recommendation of other scholars who have approached the subject in part or in full in their classrooms, web projects, professions, or personal interests. The sources selected were chosen from a wider range of sources and were selected based upon their relevance to the study and depth of information. In most cases, entire books were read and notes taken from several chapters. In other cases, certain chapters or sections were selected based on their relevance to the study, while the remainder of the text may have had little value. Books influential to the legend of Lucifer, like the works of Dante and Marlowe, were also perused and the pertinent information was retained. A number of audio-visual materials were also used such as a VHS biography of Satan as well as several online galleries.
Who is the Devil?
The legend of Lucifer has no real biblical basis. According to Maximilian Rudwin in his book The Devil in Legend and Literature, ancient Hebrews had no “devil” to speak of; the Satan of their testament was not an adversary to God or His plans, but an adjutant to the almighty (Rudwin 1). Indeed, a ‘satan’ is a judge figure at times and serves as an adversary to humanity by the decree of God, a figure who works at the direct beckoning of the Lord. A ‘satan’ need not always be a supernatural agent of God. The Philistines refused to accept David into their confidence because they were afraid he would turn his coat in battle, becoming their ‘satan’ (Cavendish 283). Later passages name the Satan as a member of God’s court whose job is to act as an accuser of men in the interests of God. “In the book of Zechariah . . . the prophet sees Joshua the high priest standing before God to be judged. The Satan stands at Joshua’s right hand to ‘resist him’ or argue the case against him” (Cavendish 283). Eventually, when the texts of the Old Testament were first translated into Greek, the term “satan” was translated as diabolos, meaning “accuser” (Cavendish 284). This word also translates into “slanderer” and the word diabolos would be that same word from which the term “devil” would derive.
The Devil, as he is popularly known, seems to have infiltrated Jewish faith on a long journey from the
The application of the name “Lucifer” for the Devil is less romanticized than the name Satan. With the identification of the source of evil having to be an autonomous force or person, a scapegoat was sought. Early Christians such as Augustine found the source of evil to have come from an angel who rebelled out of sinful pride. They found evidence of this, as Cavendish points out, in the famous passage of Isaiah which foretells the approaching doom of the Babylonian king:
How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How art thou cut down to the ground which didst weaken nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also in the mount of the congregation upon the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. Yet, thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit. (qtd. in Cavendish 286)
Lucifer, according to Luther Link, is not the Devil’s name. In fact, it is no one’s name, as the term “Lucifer” literally means “light-bringer” (Link 22). Isaiah, according to Russell, was not speaking of the Devil in this passage (Russell, The Devil 21). What he is describing is the overreaching ambition of a Babylonian king who fell into the Underworld following his failures (21). Thus, due to a simple misrepresentation of the meaning of this phrase by early Church fathers, the identification of Lucifer with the Devil was established.
With the identity of the Devil thus established, what were the contributing factors in the creation of his image, symbolism, and personality? To understand how the Devil came to be physically represented in art, literature, and folklore, it is necessary to look back on those cultures which first served to establish Satan’s identity.
Bes sometimes is shown either naked or wearing skins. Bes has “the shaggy hair, prominent mouth and teeth, tail, animal ears, bearded face, thick lips and protruding tongue that were to be Satan’s. He is often shown with monkeys and snakes, which would have reinforced the identification of Bes with evil” (64). Link points out that early Christians attributed the symbol of the monkey with concepts of sin and lust (64). Therefore, it is no surprise that a demi-god who is so often portrayed with monkeys and snakes in Egyptian lore would be misconstrued as Satan.
One example of Western sculpture that incorporates many of Bes’ attributes can be found at the
Is the Bes image from St. Lazare the only one to include the flaming hair and open mouth? Simply stated, the answer is no. Link tells us that “traitors and miscreants in medieval art stuck out their tongues, mocking their victims, and so, at times, does the Devil” (64). Devils stick out their tongues to make a mockery of both their victims and what those victims hold sacred (64). “In medieval art, kings and nobles rarely (if ever) open their mouths; devils and lower class figures do” (64). Link supposes that the motif of the open mouth and protruding tongue in Christian art owes a debt to Bes. Egyptian Christians, called Coptic monks, would have been the first group of free Christians in
The flaming hair seen at St. Lazare is another symbol typical of the Devil, though it may not be owed entirely to Bes or misrepresentations of him. Wild, unkempt hair or flaming hair was a sign of Lucifer’s fall from angelic life (65). Imagery of wild, flaming hair is more appropriately attributed to Greek deities, such as Pan or Apollo. Portraits of these two Greek deities can be found on Roman coins, and their wild hair is easily witnessed (Figure 4). “Some scholars suggest that such hair was inspired by the greased, upswept hair as worn by barbarians” (65). Regardless, the wild hair of Pan is a clear symbol of his more wild and bestial nature and the same became an early identifying feature of the Devil in art. In the detail from Psalm 38 in the Eadwine Psalter, there is a clearly defined set of devils that sport the flaming hair associated with Bes imagery, Pan, and Satan (Figure 5). This 11th century piece shows two devil-figures with wild, upswept and flaming hair. Here, these devils also wear what appear to be hairy skirts, another trait characteristic of Bes, Pan, and Satan.
The Greek Pan
The Greek god Pan has been almost universally identified as perhaps the most influential figure on the Devil’s visage. Further, as there was no literary or pictorial tradition to speak of in regards to how the Devil looked, it is a logical assumption to consider that, like Bes, Greek deities were introduced into the history of Satan.
This lack of a pictorial tradition combined with literary sources that confused the Devil, Satan, Lucifer and demons are important reasons for the lack of a unified image of the Devil and for the erratic iconography. Something, however, is better than nothing. And there was something the Christian artist could use from classical sources that theological commentary supported – Pan. ‘It is inexplicable’, wrote Shelley, ‘why men assigned him [the Devil] these additions [the horns and hoofs of Pan] as circumstances of terror and deformity. The sylvans and fauns with their leader, the great Pan, were the most poetical personages…’. (44)
Early Christians had associated all pagan deities with demons, but Pan was associated with demonology more than most. Pan was feared due to his association with the wilderness, the chosen haunt of hostile spirits (Russell, The Prince of Darkness 17). Pan was also feared for his overt sexuality. Both Greek rationalism and Christian asceticism thought of sexuality as very suspect because sexuality and sexual lust suspend reason and virtuous judgment (17). Thus, a god that was identified with sexuality was easily accepted as being evil for early Greek Christians. Pan, the son of Hermes, was hairy with exaggerated goat features such as horns and cloven hoofs. Like his father, Pan was also a phallic deity and as such he represented sexual desire in both its threatening and creative aspects (17). “Pan’s horns, hooves, shaggy fur, and outsized phallus became part of the Christian image of Satan” (17, Figure 6). Jerome referred to satyrs and fauns as being lascivious demons, and when Isaiah described the destruction of
Luther Link tells us that the five most commonly identified physical characteristics of the Devil actually derive from Pan. These characteristics include the horns, hoofs, ears, tail, and shaggy lower body (Figure 7). “Imagine what these images meant to people, alienated from classical culture, who viewed pagan tails as threatening. Bestial, lustful and unclassifiable in the Christian scheme of the world, Pan was a servant of the Devil, or the Evil One in disguise” (45). The iconographical impact of Pan on the Devil is enormous. “Medieval tradition frequently speaks of the hairiness of the Devil, sometimes of his horns, and occasionally of his cloven feet. The Devil is frequently described as taking animal forms, most commonly that of the goat” (Russell, The Devil 126). Historian Jeffrey Burton Russell believes that one reason behind the association of the Devil with Pan is due to a long history of Christians borrowing from other “chthonic” fertility deities (Russell, The Devil 126). Fertility deities were seen as demons and were feared because of their relationships with fertility, the wilderness and “sexual frenzy” (126). Indeed, any god or goddess that embraced sexuality could be easily associated with evil. Furthermore, besides the goat, other animals were associated with fertility in old world religions. Such animals included pigs, wolves, rabbits, dogs, roosters, bulls, and cats. “They also appear frequently in Christian tradition as forms of the Devil” (126).
Jeffrey Burton Russell contends that the ancient Mesopotamians and Syrians were very influential in helping to develop the Western concept of the Devil. “Sumerian civilization stands directly behind that of
The Iranian devil-figure of Ahriman also contributed to the legend of the Devil. Ahriman was the lord of darkness whose life was spent wrestling for dominion over the world with his benign brother Ohrmazd. Ahriman represented true evil as a separate force from goodness (Russell, The Devil 111). This is one of the first times a religion divided good and evil between two forces or figures, a motion that would spread into various other religions in the ancient world, including Judaism (111). Ahriman represented a “totally alien force, not to be assimilated but destroyed,” the same as the Christian Devil had yet to become (111). Ahriman also had in his employ seven lesser demons whose purpose was to aid Ahriman in his struggles against Ohrmazd. Russell states:
The seven archfiends, led by Aeshema (wrath), are Wrongmindedness, Heresy or Apostasy, Anarchy or Misgovernment, Discord, Presumption, Hunger, and Thirst. Under the command of these archdemons are hosts of other evils spirits, some of whom figure prominently in the development of the concept of the Devil. In Iranian thought, as in Christianity, the lesser demons are theoretically distinct from the Prince of Darkness, but in fact their attributes are often muddled. . . . The sins . . . are for the most part comparable to those of other religions – sins of violence: anger, murder, rape, and abortion; sins of immoderation: gluttony, drunkenness, boasting; sins against society: dishonoring parents, parsimony, ill humor. . . . There was also a wide variety of sins involving the violation of ritual tabus(sic): eating cattle or other domestic animals, doubting Ohrmazd, performing religious rites properly, bringing excrement into contact with water, and so on. The chief sin . . . remained the lie. More than anything else, the lie was thought to disrupt the cosmic order willed by Ohrmazd. That is why the lie and destruction are so closely linked to the character of Ahriman. (Russell, The Devil 115)
Satan is regarded as the Lord of Lies by Christians. Ahriman was the original Lord of Lies and it is easy to see how notions of sin were borrowed from Zoroastrian religion. Ahriman was closely associated with what were considered unclean animals such as frogs, snakes, cats and rats, an already established motif for figures of evil in many old world religions and ones that will eventually be incorporated into the Devil’s story and imagery (116). Further Ahriman, like the Christian Devil, can change his appearance at will. Stories relate how Ahriman assumed the forms of lions or snakes, lizards and handsome young men (116). “Some Zoroastrian theologians have argued that Ahriman did not have a proper material body at all. . . . The evil one might adopt any material form he saw fit since his numerous disguises were another sign of his inner nature of liar and deceiver” (116). This is an obvious character trait of the Christian Devil as well; the Christian Devil could assume the form of a serpent (to tempt Eve) and a dragon (the form in which he fought St. Michael) among numerous others. And like our Christian Satan, Ahriman and his lesser demons could “enter into the bodies of human beings, possessing them and causing disease, insanity, or death” (116).
The Devil has a number of other characteristics in common with Ahriman, though not necessarily physical. Like Lucifer, Ahriman himself was cast out of the heavens and when his body struck the earth, it created a great fissure which Ahriman continued through till he came to rest at the center of the earth The cavity created at the earth’s core became the Zoroastrian hell, a realm “infested by hostile demons, who are the only companion of the damned soul [human souls of sinners], who torment it by gnawing it, swallowing it, or piercing it with spears” (Russell, The Devil 118-119). This hell also punishes sinners based on the nature and severity of their crimes, much like Dante spoke of in his writings on the sinners in the inferno in his Divine Comedy. This hell also contained a realm similar to the Christian purgatory called Hamestagan where sinners would attempt to redeem themselves in attempt to reach paradise (118-119).
The Forms of the Fiend
A number of authors, including Maximilian Rudwin and Luther Link, researched the question of what the Devil looks like. Moreover, they researched how and where (if possible) these conventions came from. There is no convenient definition of what the Devil looks like provided in the Bible. “There is much written in the Bible about Satan’s change of behavior, but nothing about any change of appearance. He is the ultimate evil, and yet he appears attractive and righteous. The references to him as ‘snake’ or ‘serpent’ refer more to his . . . underhanded personality than his actual visual appearance” (“What Does Satan Look Like”). The only real description we get of Lucifer is in the Book of Ezekiel. The Book of Ezekiel described Lucifer as a being of perfect beauty, covered in precious stones, golden jewels, and pendants (“The Origin of Satan”).
If the Bible never created a defined image of the Devil for artists and writers to understand, where has the popular imagery come from? According to Friar Robert Marshall, the Church wasn’t ultimately responsible for endorsing a physical description of the Devil either. He writes:
. . . we make no comment on the horns and pitchforks you see around Halloween. It is generally accepted, however, that Satan and other evil spirits are angels – God’s own creatures. . . . Evil is a person, Satan, though not a human person. Because Satan (like all angels) is purely a spirit, Satan actually has no gender. Though we use masculine pronouns to speak of him . . . we do not claim that Satan is male. Satan is both male and female and can, in his activity on earth, adopt either guise. (
It seems as though the most influential forces creating the recognized iconography of Satan were not, in fact, the Bible or the Church. Through the historical research of Maximilian Rudwin, it seems as though the two forces that actually did influence our perceptions of the Devil were scholars and the habit of early Christians “borrowing” and then incorporating imagery of the various gods of other pagan faiths into their own.
The Devil is a polymorphous individual, capable of assuming nearly limitless combinations of animal, human, or monstrous forms. “The Devil as a fallen angel is, naturally enough, ‘a spirit in form and substance,’ – but he has been granted the power of manifesting himself to the eyes of man in a material form as far back as the first century of the Christian era” (Rudwin 35). As the Devil was recognized as the foe of flesh and blood humans, so too did the Devil himself have to be conceived as a flesh and blood entity. This served not to humanize the Devil, for to be humanized infers an underlying humanity. Making the Devil into flesh made his power and evil all the more real for sinner and saint alike. The Devil, in order to destroy humanity, can call into existence “any manner of body he wishes . . . that will help to further his goals” (Rudwin 35).
Rudwin contends that the Devil has a rich history of being able not only to manifest himself as his formerly angelic self, but he can also assume “any form that exists ‘in the heavens above, the earth beneath, and in the waters under the earth’” (Rudwin 35). St. Paul warns in 2 Corinthians that Satan can transform himself into the angel of light, and St. Thomas Aquinas further warns that not all of the qualities and powers gifted to Lucifer prior to his Fall have been lost to him (35-36). More frightening is the fact that, according to 16th century scholar Thomas Cramer, the Devil can even assume the visage of Christ, a revelation verified by Deacon Secundullus, who wrote that the Devil did that very thing before the Deacon’s eyes (Rudwin 36). Indeed, the Devil seems to quite enjoy taking on the forms of men. Timon of Athens said that the Devil has “command of all shapes that man goes up and down in” (qtd in Rudwin 36). The earliest known artistic representation of the Devil in a human form is known to be on a 9th century ivory diptych from around the time of Charles the Bold (36).
There have been numerous animal forms the Devil has assumed. The two most dynamic in biblical texts are the dragon and the serpent. However, folklore, scholarly works, and artistic representations have shown Satan in many other animalistic forms other than the dragon or serpent. Further, in these tales and depictions the Devil seems to have the power to totally embody one single animalistic entity, like a dragon, or morph himself into a creature made up of a variety of animal features. Thus, the Devil could have the head of a snake and the body of a lion with a tail of a scorpion and so on. Rudwin contends that the presentation of the Devil in such a hideous fashion was very much psychological. That is, the Devil makes himself into a monstrosity of repugnant animal parts in an attempt to better instill fear and terror into the hearts of men, women and children; those who are God’s chosen are those who have earned Satan’s undying enmity (36-37). Further, the idea that the Devil appeared in such a horrible form made sense to Christian forefathers and scholars. They must have imagined that Lucifer, a creature of indescribable beauty, must have sacrificed that as part of his punishment for his rebellion (37). Thus, to imagine Satan as anything other than indescribably ugly would not have made sense. “Like the Greek Gorgon, the Christian Satan was meant to represent, as Anatole
The identity of Satan as a dragon comes from the Book of Revelations. In this text Satan appears in the form of a great red dragon with seven heads, horns, and seven crowns. He does battle with St. Michael, a battle which Satan invariably lost as indicated in the following passage.
And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: . . . And there was a war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels (sic), And prevailed not. . . . And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.(qtd in Link 25)
St. Michael is the “Archangel-warrior in charge of the Heavenly Host, which defeated Satan and his hordes. Among the early Christians he was the protector of the sick and he later became the protector of soldiers, and Christians in general” (Daniel 167). This motif of Michael slaying or defeating the dragon is one of the more prominent ones in Christian art of both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. However, Michael fighting the other rebel angels is not as common (Link 26). Additionally, as Link points out, when the rebel angels and Satan are cast out, they are rarely depicted as anything else than hideously ugly. One exception is the 15th century illumination by the Limbourg brothers (Figure 8). God is situated near the apex of the work while Lucifer and his angels are cast out. Lucifer is firmly planted at the bottom center of the work while his followers trail behind him in two distinct lines. The rich blue and gold colors worn by the rebel angels draw our eyes downward. The fallen angels gradually increase in size until they culminate into the massive figure of Lucifer himself entering hell. Additionally, the Trier Apocalypse shows an even rarer scene of the rebel angels as beautiful creatures falling from heaven with their leader Lucifer, who himself appears here as the great dragon spoken of in Revelations (Figure 9).
The Trier Apocalypse dates from between 800 and 820 AD. The
When thou shalt smite Lotan, the fleeing serpent,
[And] shalt put an end to the torturous serpent,
Shalyat of the seven heads . . . . (qtd. in Link 92)
Link claims that this is a potentially valid association because, as he states, the Flood story from the Bible was inspired (at least in part) by a Babylonian flood epic (92). The idea, then, that the dragon figure in Revelations could have also come from Babylonian myths is acceptable. Furthermore, there is a cylinder seal found near
Although the dragon figure is prominent as one of his many guises, it is the serpent which is most famous from the Old Testament. Of all the representations of evil, the serpent is that which is the most common to most nations, people, and religions (Rudwin 43). Thus it should come as no surprise that the serpent in the Garden of Eden is also presented as an evil figure; however, there is no suggestion in the Book of Genesis that the serpent who tempted Eve was Satan (Cavendish 287). Christian writers simply accepted that the serpent was the Devil or one of his servants (287). Friar Robert Marshall also agrees with this notion, saying: “We often think of the serpent who appears in Genesis to tempt Eve with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge as Satan. Actually, this is a later interpretation of the text, but nonetheless an interpretation that is certainly consistent with the role the Devil plays in our world” (
Most peculiar seems to be the popular trend in the visual arts of painting Satan in the Garden of Eden as a serpent with a woman’s head. This concept, according to Rudwin, did not appear until the Middle Ages. “According to the Venerable Bede, Lucifer chose to tempt Eve through a serpent which had a female head because ‘like is attracted to like’” (Rudwin 43). Pierre Comestor took this application a step further by hypothesizing in his book Historia Scholastica, that the serpent which tempted Eve was once erect with a virgin’s head (44).
One example of the Devil appearing to Eve as a serpent with a woman’s head can be found in The Madonna of Humility with the Temptation of Eve by Carlo da Camerino (Figure 10). This piece, located at the Cleveland Museum of Art, shows the Virgin, the young Jesus, and the archangel Gabriel (to the right of Mary). The representation of the sun above Gabriel was a convention that was losing its appeal at the time (European Paintings 59). To the left of the Virgin are Saints George (below) and Michael. Below the horizontal decorative border lies the reclining Eve. The serpent coils about her leg and peers at the apple she holds in her hand. The dimensions and clarity of the face of the serpent are poor and some might be inclined to contest the gender of the head of the serpent, owed in part to the semi-poor condition the painting is in at present. While paintings of the Madonna of Humility were popular when this painting was created (circa 1400), the inclusion of the Temptation of Eve theme was rare, as this scene was typically rendered separately (59).
At times, the figure of the serpent in the Garden was further embellished. Some painters, such as Grandchamp, painted the serpent with the head of a handsome man (Rudwin 44). Others still, like Michelangelo and Raphael, painted the serpent with its body coiled around the Tree of Knowledge. Further, Michelangelo’s Temptation and Expulsion from Eden piece gracing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel shows us a half-human and half-serpent Satan (Figure 11). In Michelangelo’s piece, The Devil appears as a massive serpent twining its thick body around the Tree of Knowledge. Near the branches, the serpent’s body then molds into the thighs and hips of a humanoid figure. From the pelvic region and up, the Devil appears as a fully rendered nude figure. It’s worth mentioning, however, that Michelangelo’s Satan wears the guise of a woman, with flowing fair hair and pronounced breasts. Michelangelo’s Devil also has pronounced feminine features, especially in the face and hips. It is likely then that rendering the Devil in female form was common practice among the art community during the Italian Renaissance, and Bede’s observation was well known by artists or commissioners.
The third major form the Devil assumes is one that has no real basis in the Old or New Testament: the goat. The Devil being represented as a goat or with goat attributes dates back into distant antiquity. Goat or goat-like deities or spirits existed in religions in
The form of the Devil as a goat or having goat characteristics is so prevalent in painting and literature that it became his traditionally accepted form. Scholar Bu Ulo Valk writes that the hybridization of the Devil with the form of a goat is not uncommon in antiquity, as is seen in the numerous carved and painted images of similar figures in Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Celtic, and Hindu religions (Valk). Valk argues that the tendency over history to attribute animal characteristics to the Devil has served to remove all sense of humanity from him except for his innate ability to still walk and talk (Valk). Due to the simple fact that all of these religions were seen as pagan, early Christians merely recognized that these religions’ zoomorphic deities and spirits were “applications of the Devil in disguise” (Valk). The Devil, in their estimation, took on these appearances in order to hide his true nature, identity, or appearance (Valk).
Likely it was Satan’s association with the Greek god Pan that served to hybridize the Devil into a satyric creature. Again, Greek myth was heavily influential of, and utilized by, Imperial Rome. Pan was also a common figure in stories and renderings when Christianity was in its infancy. It is sensible to assume that just as African Christians looked to and absorbed Bes in to their perspective of the Devil, so too would Christian Rome absorb satyrs following Constantine’s conversion (if not previously). Devil spirits in the New Jerusalem Bible are referred to as “satyrs” (“Devil in Art”). Satyrs were attributed with lusty behavior and impure intentions, a perfect ingredient to add to the Devil’s image and legacy. This is reinforced by the association of goats with the god Dionysus as well. Festivals for Dionysus took place at night, a time associated with darkness and the forbidden for early Christians (Russell, The Devil 139). These rituals were often held in a cave or a grotto and the worshippers, primarily women, were led by a male priest (139). “The procession bore torches, a phallic image, and figs and other sexually suggestive fruits, and led a dark goat or statue of a goat” (Russell, The Devil 141). Dionysus was referred to as “he of the black goat” and was often portrayed as a shaggy, horned figure (141). Arguably, the prevalence of Dionysus and Pan in Greco-Roman mythology had some effect on early Christians who likely imbued characteristics of both into Lucifer. Yet the Devil’s artistic representation as a satyr or goat figure for all its similarities to Greco-Roman antiquity was not immediately embraced by early artists. The Devil as a satyr or goat figure was much more prevalent in the Renaissance than in the Middle Ages. James Hall writes:
The image of evil as a composite, zoomorphic creature belonged to ancient Persian and Egyptian religion. It was eastern influence that produced the many headed monster of the Apocalypse and the Satan of Byzantine art. Later western medieval art modified his shape, making it essentially human but retaining numerous bestial appendages: claws for hands and feet, a tail, limbs entwined with serpents, and sometimes his wings as a reminder of his angelic origin. . . . The Renaissance took its image of the devil from the classical satyr, with its horns and cloven hoof, signifying that paganism was the enemy of the church. (Hall 272)
Luther Link agrees with Hall that the image of the Devil as a goat or goat-like figure was a convention more of the Renaissance. Numerous carvings in Romanesque churches and cathedrals in
This is not to say that associations between the Devil and goats were not exercised in medieval art. In a sixth-century mosaic in San Apollonare Nuovo in
The Devil also assumed a number of additional animal features attributed with a score of other religions. The Devil would inherit the three heads of the Greek Cerberus. Many other underworld gods of antiquity also had three heads or three faces. “The Devil’s trinitarian head recalls Typhon of the Egyptians, Hecate of classical mythology, Hrim-Grimmr of the Edda and Triglaf of the Slavs” (Rudwin 40). The application of a three-headed or three-faced Satan was easily adopted by Church fathers.
The trinity idea of the Devil was interpreted by the Church fathers as Satan’s parody of the trinitarian God-head. The Devil is described as a three headed monster in the Gospel of Nicodemus (3rd century) and in the Good Friday Sermon of Eusebius of Alexandria, who addresses him as the ‘Three-Headed Beelzebub.’ (Rudwin 40)
Additionally, the Devil also assumed the image of the elephant, an animal sacred to Buddhists, the bull, venerated by the Egyptians, the pig, symbolic of the Egyptian Seth, and the fox and bear, animals sacred to a variety of pagan religions in central
Common Characteristics of the Devil
During Christianity’s march across
The first characteristic of importance is the color of the Devil. The Devil appears in many colors over the years including red and blue. Yet his most predominant coloration is black (Figure 14. “The black color presumably is intended to suggest his place of abode. Racial hatred had, however, much to do with the dark description of the Devil. There is no warrant in biblical tradition for a black devil” (Rudwin 45). Satan appears as both and Ethiopian and a Moor as far back as the era of the Church fathers. “Descriptions of the Devil as black in color will be found in the Acts of the Martyrs, the Acts of St. Bartholomew, and in the writings of Augustine and Gregory the Great” (Rudwin 45). Hence a black face or skin was another common trait of Lucifer. Reginald Scot wrote: “Of all human forms, that of a Negro or a Moor is considered a favorite one with the demons” (qtd. in Rudwin 45). It is interesting to note that while the Devil appears as a black man to whites, he appears as a white man to blacks. The vast majority of tribes in west Africa represent the Devil as an insidious white man, though red has also been used (46). He is described in the New Testament as being a fiery red color which Rudwin likens to an eternal salamander in our popular imaginations (46). A number of other gods in antiquity were represented in red as well, including Brahma of the Hindus and Hapi of the
The Devil also has a handful of physical characteristics attributed to his body (Figure 15). He is typically shown as being quite lean with long hands that might look claw-like (Rudwin 47). This convention was quite common until the publication of Dante’s Inferno, which portrayed Satan as a gigantic in size and girth. Artistic representations following Dante’s work prefer to show the Devil as a mammoth creature, not at all as thin or unbecoming as the presentations of the Devil before that. “Testimonials” claim that the Devil has a face as pale or yellowed as old wax with a deeply wrinkled face (47). Granted, this is not what was discovered previously as most accounts seem to favor a black or red devil, whether in the face, skin or attire. Yet, these “testimonials” are at the heart of much of the folklore of the Devil and, as will be discussed, folklore tends to exaggerate the topic of the Devil so seriously that no one (or even a handful of) convention(s) can be trusted as absolutely true. Further, the idea of a yellow-faced Devil will gain acceptance once again through Dante, who described one of the Devil’s three faces as yellow. The cadaverous and thin aspect of the Devil is as old as antiquity itself. Demons are always represented as being lean creatures in ancient literature and art with the only notable exception being the Egyptian Typhon (Rudwin 47). Caesarius of Heisterbach validated the appearance of the Devil as lean, emaciated, or striated. “A devil is usually so thin as to cast no shadow” (qtd. in Rudwin 47).
Popular modern imagery of the Devil provides him with a pitchfork. This symbolic object dates to the fabled trident of Poseidon. The trident of Poseidon, in turn, was influenced by the triple lightning of an old Babylonian god Adad, who ruled over the forces of weather and whose heyday can be traced to the second millennium B.C. (Link 13). There is no biblical source for the Devil’s pitchfork. There are no visual depictions of the Devil holding a pitchfork until the Eadwine Psalter in the ninth century (Figure 5). The inclusion of the pitchfork is rarely seen in the visual arts again until the Renaissance, re-appearing in Fra Angelico’s Last Judgment (Figure 14B).
Where did the convention of the pitchfork come from? It is highly doubtful that Romanesque artists were aware of Mesopotamian mythos and symbology and tracing the origin of the pitchfork to Poseidon may prove to be equally troubling. Link states that the pitchfork really is not a pitchfork at all, but a grapnel, a forked hook used to torture heretics and criminals (14). “The Devil was given a grapnel to suggest his co-operation with God in torturing the damned, and this implies that the Devil’s main role was not that of God’s adversary but that of his accomplice” (Link 14). It is important to realize that this idea, proffered by Link, only applies to the original Eadwine Psalter imagery of the Devil with grapnel. As the decades and centuries passed, the Devil would no longer be looked upon as an accomplice to God at all, but as a very real threat and omnipresent danger working contrary to God’s wishes. With Fra Angelico’s Last Judgment, no longer is the Devil working in concert with God. Rather, he and his minions torture the souls of those unfortunates lost to God.
The Devil may also appear as a bearded man, a minister, a scholar, or a woman. The beard became a device of later representations of the Devil, and was far more common to Eastern Church iconography (Rudwin 48). In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Devil is frequently seen wearing a monk’s robe (50). This convention became quite popular in
The Devil has also assumed the visage of a woman for his plans. When he wishes to tempt a man in the flesh, he will typically assume the form of a beautiful girl. “The belief prevailed in the Middle Ages that the Devil is often manifest on earth clothed in all the natural perfections of woman, inciting men to sin until their souls are by this means snatched from their bodies and carried off to hell” (Rudwin 52). St. Anthony met Lucifer when the fiend was disguised as a woman in the Thebaid (53) Painters such as Bosch, Altdorfer, Teniers and Da Vinci have presented the Devil in a similar fashion.
Many of the works of Da Vinci were in line with the Church beliefs of his time. His works represent a real belief in the both the Devil and evil (“Devil in Art”). A handful of Da Vinci’s paintings indicate some knowledge of the Devil or some manifestation of evil. In some cases, the evil might lurk in the background of the piece, though more often than not it is shown in the guise of an unassuming host or hostess. One example of this can be seen in Verrochio’s Baptism of Christ (Figure 17). Leonardo Da Vinci painted the female figure at the left in the composition. It is supposed to be an angel holding a robe for Christ following his baptism (“Devil in Art”). However, this “angel” has a much more feminine cast to its features. If this be the case, then this female angel appears to have her hand inside the boy’s tunic and serves to distract the boy’s attention away from Christ (“Devil in Art”). Granted, the image may not have been intended to portray such an idea, but the image is quite ambiguous. Both Da Vinci and Verrochio were master artists who were very detail oriented when it came to their work. It is logical to assume that Da Vinci, whether as a student or a refined master, would have given careful consideration to how his characters appear, how they are dressed, how they look, and how they are positioned. Thus, this composition in Baptism of Christ must be intentional and not accidental.
This might be representational of a Satanic attack on Christendom. If so, this would then embrace the principle that the Devil could indeed “transformeth to an angel of light” (“Devil in Art”). This certainly is not out of the realm of possibility. It has already been established that the Devil can assume beautiful or handsome features of men, women, and angels alike. Further, the Devil is the ultimate tempter and might well be the focus of some sexual motivation seen here on the part of the feminized angel at left. Sexuality was traditionally a devilish motif in Christian art. Further, we also note how different the right arm of the angel is in comparison to the rest of its body. The arm is black, highlighted by strange physical textures. It appears almost scaly or reptilian, like the arm of a dragon, another form closely associated with Lucifer in both literature and the arts.
This is highly speculative and is not a theorem supported by many. Professor Arthur Harshman believes that Da Vinci was too much of a humanist and scientist to be involved with the Devil in artwork (Harshman). This would include even symbolic representations of the Devil. Still, the relationship between the angel and the child has an effect on the viewer and with all that is known of the Devil’s forms, plots, and powers, such a theory is still noteworthy, if not totally believable.
Folklore, Literature and the Devil
The Church never officially endorsed an opinion on what the Devil really looks like. The Old and New Testaments are vague at best. The Bible itself only mentions the Devil appearing or taking an active role in its tales a handful of times. Obviously, Lucifer’s rebellion and fall is one tale. The Devil infiltrating the Garden and tempting Eve is another, though as mentioned the serpent is never actually identified as being Satan; it was simply inferred to be by early Church fathers. The Devil again appears in the Book of Job and in the Book of Revelations with an interlude in the middle where he tempts Christ in the desert. Thus, there are only five major storylines involving the Devil in the Bible and only twice do we get any real type of description of what he is or looks like: serpent or dragon. Where, then, did the artists of the Middle Ages get their inspiration for the frightening animalistic, zoomorphic images for the devil? The Devil’s image-related lineage goes back to Bes, Pan, and many other pagan symbols, animals, and gods. Yet, during the Dark Ages, tales and legends of the Devil were common, rich, and terrifying. In most cases, these folk legends came from “eyewitness” accounts, usually from respected church-going folk or agents of that benevolent institution. In fact, the importance of understanding literary and folkloric influences in helping to shape the image of the Devil is doubly important when one considers that it wasn’t until the Council of Toledo in the 5th century A.D. that the legal existence of the Devil was actually endorsed by the Church. Where the Church was slow in contemplating the likeness and power of Satan, folklore was taking his terror to many new levels.
It is important to remember that Satan has been granted the ability by both the Church and Scripture to assume virtually any form imaginable, no matter how bizarre, fantastic, or horrific. In folklore the Devil seems to have two specific purposes. One is to act as the tempter of mortals to sin while the other is to be he punisher of the sinful (Valk). As a tempter, he appears in deceitfully pleasant forms such as monks, women, or angels (Valk). As punisher, however, he appears in his natural and horrible form, as disguising himself is no longer needed (Valk).
Historian Bu Ulo Valk has spent a great deal of time researching the Devil as he appears in medieval folk tales. During these times, most of Christian Europe undoubtedly knew of the Devil and the Church history surrounding his character. As punishment for his uprising against God, Satan was cast out of heaven and his heavenly beauty was forever transformed as a mark of disgrace for falling into sin. Valk contends that most medieval Christians accepted the notion that the Devil turned into a horrible, grotesque creature that mixed together the relics of his angelic features with terribly bestial aspects (Valk). The Devil then can be seen as a combination of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic shapes and was conceived as thus in a number of folk legends regarding the Devil (Valk). Consider the following documented accounts from the Middle Ages:
· The Devil is said to be half-dog and half ram, with a tail behind and horns on his head.(Valk)
· I saw a strange animal once. . . . There was an apple-tree by the road. We were coming with the cattle. The other boy said, ‘See, there is a nice apple up there.’ As I looked at the apple, I saw an animal on all fours under the tree. Its skin was like a calf’s skin, and it wore a baron’s hat. The brim of the hat was made of something like human nails. Then I thought, ‘This is the Old Fiend [Satan].’ Then it began to move; its legs were like a crayfish’s claws. (Valk)
· I was a child once when we were in the town of
Undoubtedly accounts like these served to increase the trepidation that surrounded the Devil. The description of the forms he has taken is widely varied and far more imaginative than might have been conceived of by visual artists. Therefore, while the Church was sanctioning frescos and murals to be made rendering Christian themes and events, it is possible that the inspiration for the likeness of the Devil came more from the tales and bedtime stories; the artists themselves might have been exposed to more than a defined, Church ordered rendition of the Prince of Darkness.
Folk legends relating to the Devil were neither concentrated nor centralized in one location in
Folklore additionally added further details to the theological tradition of the Devil. Folklore helped to add details such as what clothes the Devil wore, how he danced, how cold and hairy he was, and how people could both trick and evade the his traps (Russell, Prince of Darkness 111). Folklore served to cement the relationship of Satan with giants, dragons, ghosts, monsters, werewolves, and “the little people” (111). Satan could not, however, assume the forms of lambs or oxen as these were traditionally associated with Christ and the Apostles (112). Some of these elements became so powerful or common that they eventually insinuated themselves into the art and literature of the times and beyond. Folklore, however, did little to address the nature of the evil the Devil was responsible for. In many ways, folklore served to trivialize the evil nature of Satan and served to “undermine the human effort to understand and cope with the power of destruction” (111-12). Names attached to the Devil included Old Scratch, Lusty Dick, Gentleman Jack, Old Hairy, and Black Bogey. Many of then names were even more absurd, such as Terrytop and Charlot, and assigning such was a popular antidote to the terror Satan promoted (112).
The shapes he could assume were fantastical at times, though according to Russell, his proper form is invisible or amorphous (Russell, Prince of Darkness 114). He could appear as a giant, whirlwind, or massive idol. He often appears in folklore as monstrous and deformed – his outer shape forever revealing his inner defect (114). He can appear lame in the legs due to his fall, his knees might be backwards and he might appear to have a face on his belly or buttocks (Figure 19). He sometimes is blind with horns and a tail; he is limited to one or no nostrils and has no eyebrows (114). His eyes shoot fire and his skin emits a sulfurous stink (114). He may also, in his role as deceiver, assume the visage of the Holy Mother and Christ themselves (114). He usually wore black, a symbol of his lack of goodness. His skin can be black, the color of evil, or red, the color of fire and blood (114). He might also have a red beard or red hair, which, according to some folk tales, made red-haired men and women more susceptible to his powers (114).
In some cases, the Devil actually served to help people, as in the case of the knight Gerard. Caesar of Heisterbach retells the tale of the how the Devil at one time abused the hospitality of Gerard by stealing the good knight’s warm fur cape (“Medieval Sourcebook”). The Devil hoped to anger the knight and cause him to lose his patience. It failed and Gerard then left on a holy pilgrimage to
Not every story, though, recounted the Devil as a benefactor to humanity. Frank Luttmer at a
The powers and forms the Devil assumed in folklore and legends are quite varied. Bu Ulo Valk created a list of the most common physical characteristics of the Devil in the folk tales of
· Horns occur 108 times
· Animal feet occur 105 times
· Tail occurs 92 times
· Long or large teeth occur 26 times
· Red or bloody teeth occur 14 times
· Metal teeth occur 9 times
· Spitting fire occurs 18 times
· Hairy body occurs 18 times
· Goatee occurs 12 times
· Burning eyes occur 10 times (Valk)
Arguably, the frequency by which animal feet, horns and a tail occur is important. The Devil we see today is the direct product of the influence of these folkloric manifestations. Thus, whereas Pan and Bes served to create the model by which we first visualized the Devil’s likeness, it was the strong influence afforded by folkloric tradition that served to cement those (and other) features to him. Jeffrey Burton Russell agrees with this notion, claiming that wide shifts in attitudes toward the Devil in the Middle Ages sometimes moved in contradictory directions. Satan continued to become more and more colorful and immediate in art, sermons, literature, and the popular consciousness as a direct result of folklore and legend (Russell, Prince of Darkness 130). This was also due, in part, to the fact that intellectual life was dominated by scholasticism, which was characterized by a strict and formal application of reason to exercises of theology, philosophy, and law from 1050 to 1300 (130). However, as the Devil’s role in art and literature increased, his role in theology declined. Humanism, the satisfaction theory of St. Anselm, and the revival of Aristotelian ethics all lessened Lucifer’s role in theology (131). In fact, his role was sometimes so degraded that the Devil became more a caricature of propaganda and rhetoric, the fool of stage and literature rather than the true Prince of Darkness he had previously been associated with (131).
Literature of the early Middle Ages drew specifically on theological and folkloric influences (Russell, Lucifer 133). However, Russell points out that literary artists were not theologians themselves and made modifications and embellishments to the figure of Satan and his minions for aesthetic and dramatic purposes (133). Through their vision, literature served to make the “pathos and rage of Lucifer’s rebellion and doom more vivid” (133). The early works of literature that dealt with Lucifer in a large role were Old English manuscripts such as Genesis A, Genesis B, and “The Harrowing of Hell” (133). From reading Russell’s explanation of these texts, they did little to produce a new variable look to the Devil. The two Genesis stories offer an alternative to the traditional biblical Genesis; however, there is little contained here indicating what the Devil looks like. Other tales like Christ and Satan, another Old English manuscript, are used more as a set of lessons on the Devil and Christ related to the reader as stories and poems. Again, there is little regarding what Satan looks like. Yet while little was written that clarified what the Devil looks like, the artists who illuminated these texts did create a wealth of visual imagery. A number of illuminated texts from the 11th and 12th century show nicely detailed illustrations that served to shape Lucifer’s form. The illumination from the Old English manuscript retelling the Harrowing of Hell (Figure 14A) shows Christ leading John the Baptist and the Hebrew patriarchs out of the mouth of hell. The defeated form of the Devil lies prone and bound at the feet of the savior. A cross is thrust into his mouth like a lance, symbolically pinning the Devil to hell and silencing the Lord of Lies.
Literature of the High Middle Ages grew bolder, adding descriptive modifiers to Satan and creating more colorful manuscripts and illuminations for tales and poems. Literature here became increasingly varied, dramatic, and diverse. Works such as The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer and Piers Plowman by William Langland served to keep the Devil constant in the psyche of the High Middle Ages, but neither served to help reintroduce a description for Satan. Even Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus did little to define the form of the fiend. While universally hailed as a literary masterpiece, Doctor Faustus did little but romanticize Satan. His minion Mephistopheles is more fully rendered than Lucifer himself. The only clue we get to how the Devil looks in Marlowe’s piece is presented to us in a handful of lines:
Lucifer: Christ cannot save thy soul, for he is just: There’s none but I
have interest in the same.
Faustus: O who art thou who look’st so terrible?
Lucifer: I am Lucifer (Marlowe 172)
The text that has served perhaps to solidify a physical description for the Devil in the hearts and minds of Westerners more than any other medieval text is Dante’s Inferno. Written in the early 14th century, the Inferno was a part of a larger work called the Divine Comedy. The Inferno is recognized as being the most powerful of the stories written in the anthology and served to redefine the image of Hell and its Lord. The Inferno served to once again create the Devil as an object of fear and loathing. He is presented to us by Dante as a creature drawn in upon himself. He is “nothingness, hatred, darkness, and despair. His isolation stands in utter contrast with the community of love in which God joins our minds” (Russell, Lucifer 217). Dante describes the fiend thus:
The emperor of all the realms of woe
From his midbreast emerged above the ice.
Better with giants I myself compare
Than do the giants with his mighty arms.
Now mark how vast must be the whole of him
To be in scale with the parts of such proportions!
If he was once as fair as now he’s foul,
Yet lifted up his brows against his Maker,
Well should all tribulation come from him:
And what a monster he appeared to me
When I perceived three faces on his head!
The one in front was of a crimson hue,
And to it were the other two attached
Above the very middle of each shoulder;
There where the crest is borne, all three were joined
The right-hand one was of a yellowish white,
While that upon the left was just as black
As any Ethiopian’s on the
Beneath each face there sprang forth two great wings
Of size befitting such a monstrous bird:
Sails so immense were never known at sea.
Hey bore no feathers – rather, they were made
Like wings of bats; and he was flapping them
To make three separate blasts of icy wind,
Enough to freeze the confines of Cocytus.
With all six eyes he wept, and from three chins
The tears and bloody foam were trickling down.
In every horrid mouth he crunched a sinner,
As stalks of flax are broken by a heckle:
He thus kept them in constant torment. (Dante, Canto 34)
This single Canto helped to both define and redefine how the Devil was rendered in art. The adoption of the tri-partite head of old gods was now solidly associated with the Christian Devil. His mammoth size became the norm, a sharp contrast to his earlier renderings as slender to the point of casting no shadow. While Dante’s Satan still lacks greatly detailed descriptors, Dante did succeed in presenting him as empty, foolish, and contemptible. Dante further refers to the Devil as “shaggy” with “matted hair” and thick flanks (Dante, Canto 34). Thus, the hairiness of the Devil is further validated as well as his thick girth. His body is like pure matter in contrast to his once light, angelic form. The three faces of Satan all represent different things symbolically through Dante’s work. The red face may indicate sin or shame, the yellowish-white face symbolizes impotence, and the black face is synonymous with ignorance or corruption (Russell, Lucifer 233). Passages from Dante’s Inferno and the Divine Comedy as a whole served to cement the image of both hell and its master. It became the fodder for hundreds of sketches, illuminations, and paintings from the time the books were completed to the Renaissance and Romantic ages of art and beyond. Through literature and folklore, artists were given a variety of iconographic details, both formal and informal, to base there renderings on. Some Gothic and Renaissance artists are best known not for their great works depicting the life and works of Christ and the Apostles, but of their adversary: Lucifer.
The Devil and the Visual Arts
Early Catholics counted art among the many devices of Satan and affirmed the diabolical origins of artistic beauty. “Inasmuch as the Evil Spirit was the most beautiful of angels, it stands to reason that he will tempt mortals, not by denying art, but through art and under the mask of beauty” (Andre Therive, qtd. in Rudwin 252). The Church argued that the Devil lurked behind all beauty, a premise that may have been picked up by Da Vinci, as many of his works promote a sense of the presence of hidden, lurking evil (Rudwin 252). Saint Cyprian saw the Devil in a flower, while the Church of England endorsed the idea that muses, the spirits of creativity, were the daughters of Satan (52). The idea that art was the tool of Satan did not die out with the misconceptions sponsored by medieval scholasticism and theology. Andre Gide affirms that “there is no true work of art without collaboration of the Devil” (qtd. in Rudwin 252). Additionally, James Huneker claims that there would be no art without the devil and Charles Beadelair (sic) states that modern art has an “essentially devilish tendency” (qtd. in Rudwin 252).
The Devil as a common figure in the arts did not become so until the 9th century (Russell, Lucifer 130). What came after was a rapid increase in both presentations and variety of works depicting him. Early medieval art made little distinction between the agents of the Devil and the Devil himself (Russell, Lucifer 130). A humanoid Devil first appeared in the 6th century and was the dominant expression up through the 11th century (130). The Devil’s monstrous shape or animalistic shape then began to take precedence at that time (130). The humanized Devil was typically slender and often rendered as nude or with a loincloth. This skirt appeared in some of the pictures of the Devil from the 9th century
In the 11th century, a manuscript shows the truly polymorphed Devil: a creature that is humanoid but also very bestial (Russell, Lucifer 130). The figure is large with white eyes, black skin, a short tail and ox-like ears, clawed feet and short horns (130). Other images showed the Devil in paintings and illuminations with hollow eyes, wrinkled skin, apelike head and massive paws. “This symbolism was intended to show the Devil as deprived of beauty, harmony, reality, and structure” (131). The Devil was usually winged in early medieval art, but his wings were still comprised of feathers. This stayed typical until around the 12th century when Satan with bat-like wings became the norm (132). The Devil is also shown with spiky or swept-up hair, almost like flames. Eventually, other popular artistic conventions for the Devil and his minions included spindly arms and legs, bloated torsos, glowing eyes, and hooked noses, the last of which Russell claims was included as a way to demonize Jews (132).
The frequency and scope of the Devil in the visual arts underwent a period of ebb and flow during the middle to later medieval period. During the late Middle Ages, Lucifer’s importance in the canon of theology dwindled in the face of rising concerns for humanism, feudalism, and courtly love (Russell, Lucifer 208). Now evil was being rationalized as a work of human motivation and not so much demonic influence. In the visual arts, the form of the Devil was rendered based more on the availability or limitations of the materials presented. Russell points out that sculpting the Devil in a “quasi-human form is easier to portray than a little black imp; in the cramped confines of an illuminated manuscript the imp is easier; no ivory shows a black devil” (Russell, Lucifer 139). The attempt to trace developments of artistic representations of the Devil is a daunting task. “Trends are mostly local in time and place and often reverse themselves” (209). Whereas the Devil portrayed as an impish creature may have fallen from use in
Prior to the rise of the Renaissance, the typical forms the Devil assumed in art were as a dragon or as a black figure. In a number of works, the Devil appears as a squatting, almost gorilla-like figure as in the illuminations based on the works of Gerona Beatus and others (Figure 14C). One of the main reasons why the Devil’s image would change prior to the Renaissance was due in part to the increase of power in the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope. “In 1184, both pushed aside their disagreements and joined to judge and separate the peoples of
Gislebertus executed a massive Last Judgment piece in stone on the tympanum of St. Lazare in Autun circa 1130 A.D (Figure 19). It was the most memorable and detailed of all Last Judgment pieces until Michelangelo would tackle the subject during the Renaissance (Link 121). In the work, angels separate the blessed from the damned. The blessed are rendered in a more rounded, fleshed-out form. The damned are made much more angular, their bent and twisted forms representing the tortures they are experiencing at their final judgment (121). Above the damned is a “ghoulish Satan with an emaciated, striated body. He has hands, claw-like feet, shaggy hair and a cavernous mouth with prominent teeth” (122). Satan stands opposite the archangel Michael and between them is a set of scales provided by God to weigh the souls of humanity. Behind the Devil, one of the hidden demonic host lurches forth from the mouth of hell to ensnare the souls of the damned with chains and forks. “This is an image of terror not seen before and not seen again. The terror is not so much at what the Devil can do but what Christ’s judgment means when a soul is damned” (122).
The image of the Devil as striated and emaciated was not new when Gislebertus executed his tympanum. Capitals at
By contrast, the Last Judgment on the tympanum of St. Etienne Cathedral at
The Devil found a steady home in the artistic works of Northern humanist artists like Albrecht Dürer. Dürer was considered a child prodigy and traveled extensively in his early years, as far as the
His other great piece featuring the Devil is aptly titled Knight, Death, and the Devil (Figure 22). This engraved piece follows his Apocalypse series, dating to 1513 A.D. This piece again combines Northern humanist style with Italian Renaissance motifs (Cuttler 348). The knight is a symbol of Christian faith, while his dog is a symbol of the virtue of tireless zeal, truthful reasoning, and learning (349). The frightening visage of death, astride a fitting pale horse, stands in the background, awaiting the knight to pass by. The Devil, rendered yet again in the grotesque, stands behind the horse’s flanks. Both the Devil and Death are “markedly subordinated to the steadfastness of the knight” (349). The Devil here is even less human than in most other renderings. He is scaly, horned, and pig-snouted with little, if any, of his former angelic visage apparent. The Devil holds a pike, a noted departure from the grapnel and pitchfork associated with him. The Devil has one enormous horn that tops his shaggy head and his expression is one more of passivity than aggression. His massive ears add nothing but a sense of derision to his form. This Devil is supremely the product of folkloric traditions, but he has lost his wicked edge. Dürer’s Devil almost borders on the absurd, with little in the form of the Devil inspiring terror in the viewer.
The wealthy usurer Enrico Scrovegni commissioned the Italian artist Giotto to decorate his sumptuous Arena Chapel in the early 1300’s. Giotto accepted the work, a monumental fresco of the Last Judgment. Giotto changed some of the conventions that other artists had used when painting or carving the Last Judgment. Giotto’s Satan (Figure 23) resides completely inside hell and is “an unreal grotesque eating the damned the way he is supposed to” (Link 135). Paintings depicting Satan eating sinners had appeared before Giotto’s work, most notably in Torcello’s Last Judgment as well as in the Florence Baptistry (135). Giotto’s Devil is a massive figure squatting in hell. His three heads - one human, one serpent, one dragon - all consume the sinners that surround him. His body is hairy, his torso is bloated, and he appears to be defecating sinners that he may have already consumed, a convention that would later appeal to the artist Bosch (136). Flanking Satan on either side are additional dragons who also consume sinners while the Devil grasps still more with his hands. He has become the very embodiment of sloth and gluttony here on his throne. His agents surround him and they are all “bearded old men with talons and tails . . . and they are busy tormenting the naked damned” (136). The true nature of Giotto’s great work, and indeed his greatness as an artist overall, is his ability to reduce a scene to its “monumental essentials” (136). Giotto was the only major painter of the Renaissance to paint the Devil. It makes sense, then, that something should be said of how he treated such a visceral figure. To wit:
Giotto created space through and for the solid volumes of his figures. Their drapery reflects the movement of their limbs in a real world that requires no translation. That is why, as Giotto specialist, C. Gnudi, has rightly noted, the extra-terrestrial had no special interest for Giotto, because what seemed unreal (as devils did), he sensed as untrue. . . . These reasons make Giotto’s treatment of the Devil of exceptional interest precisely because his treatment of the Devil was unexceptional. (Link 145)
Hans Baldung Grien
Lucifer was looked upon by the church as the lord of earthly love and sexual desire (Rudwin 266). The affection of one sex for another was believed to be under the special control of the powers of hell (266). This concept was as old as the Church itself. As a result, overtly sexualized works were understandably forbidden by the Church. Carnal love was caused after all, in the opinion of monks and missionaries, by demonic possession (266). Celibacy, although not embraced, was understood to be the preferred state for men by decree of early Church theorists and lawmakers like Origen (266).
Yet between 1490 and 1530, paintings that focused on more overly sexual themes began to appear. Church agents such as Augustine had “resolutely condemned” sensual expressions in the arts (Link 151). Indeed, some painters were imprisoned for executing such works, while others maintained and enjoyed a relative sense of prosperity from their labors, seemingly protected by powerful friends and the intentional vagueness of their sexualized works. One such painter was Hans Baldung Grien.
Hans Baldung Grien’s Adam and Eve painting is richly progressive and erotic in its subtlety (Figure 24). Painted in 1531, it contains the Devil in his serpent form, twining around the tree and gazing at Eve. Link contends that the serpent in the work may not have been Satan at all, and, as is true to his established powers, assumed the disguise of a handsome young man: Adam. Eve stands in full figure, clutching the apple in her left hand. Adam stands close behind her and gently places both hands on her body. What Link cites as evidence that Adam is the Devil is based more on the posture and mannerisms of the First Man. “Adam cups her breast with one hand and strokes her thigh with the other. In a startling reversal, Baldung makes Adam, not Eve, the seducer” (Link 154). His unkempt hair looks wild and suggests the Devil’s horns. Adam and Eve appear as confident lovers and embody the very nature of sexual delight. The truly insidious nature of this piece is when one considers whether the Devil is in fact Adam, seducing and victimizing Eve in the very flesh of her husband. Here the Devil’s planned seduction of Eve to tempt her with the Apple takes on a whole new meaning, endorsed seemingly by her own husband.
Luca Signorelli painted his Renaissance works with a flair for the dramatic and theatrical. He also was a proponent of nude figures and massive compositions. His Last Judgment and Antichrist images at Orvieto are a “dense mass of crowded, overdeveloped naked bodies” (Link 156). Some of the characters individually carry force, as in his Rule of Antichrist piece at Orvieto.
The Rule of Antichrist piece retells the biblical prophecy of the rise of the Antichrist, he who would be one of the harbingers of the apocalypse. The mural shows the Antichrist surrounded by throngs of bystanders eager for his false message that he is the returning Christ. One of the interesting aspects of the work is that is serves to demonize both women and Jews. The Jew, left of the Antichrist, is dressed in traditional garb and hands out coins to a mass of women who covetously surround the usurious infidel. While intended to be a fresco of some beauty and skill, the fashion in which Jews and women are portrayed in the work instill a subtle anti-Semitism and sexism.
The Rule of Antichrist piece is a large fresco whose two most dominant figures are the Antichrist and Satan (Figure 25). The Antichrist stands on a pulpit of sorts and addresses those whom have fallen under his sway. Standing behind the Antichrist and firmly holding him is the Devil, seemingly whispering directives to the Antichrist to speak to his followers. The central Antichrist is the largest figure in the work. He is a commanding figure by both his stature and coloration. “Signorelli’s colors in the Antichrist are, in general, more intense and ‘hotter’ than elsewhere in the chapel, and although this might be understood as a function of his evolving style, the brighter colors are well suited to the violent and threatening tenor of the work” (Riess 115). The Antichrist has wide-set eyes which add an underlying brutishness to his character (116). His complexion is darker, connecting his image with swarthy Jews and once again establishing graphic effects of anti-Semitism in this piece (116). This serves to join the “swarthy antichrist” with the Devil who himself appears in the work as a dark-skinned figure (116).
The Devil whispers in the ear of the Antichrist. The posture of the Devil in relation to his minister provides a sense that the Devil has physically possessed his minister (Riess 116). This perfectly presents the Devil as the hidden slanderer, using the voice of the Antichrist to further both his own ends and his terrible lies which tempt men and women to follow this false prophet. The Devil himself is stripped of many of his tell-tale details. Missing here is his bloated or shadowy body covered in thick hair. No tail is evident and his wings are almost lost in the mass of bodies behind him. The horns on this Devil are quite pronounced, however, and the interaction between him and his minister borders on the intimate.
The congruency between Antichrist and the devil had never before been presented in so believable and thus menacing a fashion; Jerome’s statement that “Antichrist is a man possessed of satanic energy” had never been so graphically demonstrated. As Antichrist is essentially human in appearance, so too is the devil, despite his horns and wings (of which only traces remain). . . . The terrible beauty of Signorelli’s devil diverges, for example, from the thoroughly repugnant and phantasmagoric devil of Dante, the poet who has been seen otherwise as having had so great an impact on Signorelli. . . . Signorelli simply did not wish to render the figure in the monstrous fashion in which he described in the Commedia. (Riess 117)
Signorelli’s Devil, then, does not follow convention again, as demonstrated by so many of his predecessors. His Devil is nothing like the emaciated monstrosity of Gislebertus or the bloated giant of Giotto. Signorelli, like these and so many other artists, held fast to Renaissance individualism and opted to portray the Devil as he saw him. It is likely that the image of this Satan is based on one of Signorelli’s earlier works, School of Pan, in which he created a handsome and seductive satyr (Reiss 117). This device was also duplicated in his other Orvieto fresco, The Damned (Figure 26). Here the devils which torment the damned are all but carbon-copies of the Antichrist Devil save for one or two notable exceptions. Regardless, the Devil in the Rule of Antichrist is important for additional reasons beyond simple aesthetic ones. This Devil walks among the crowd and as such is no phantom of the mind (118). “The devil . . . is a material and active agent, and . . . the idea of Antichrist as blood-and-bones representative of a substantive evil that humankind has created in its own image is powerfully conveyed by a man-like Antichrist and his man-like demon companion” (118). Signorelli’s work signifies yet another fork in the themes the Devil represents. Through his efforts, Satan will be more closely associated with both sexual fantasy and sadistic impulse (Link 158). These themes will be built on by literature and drama which would invariably come to further influence later illustrations and writing regarding the Devil. Signorelli’s work serves to no longer horrify the viewer with Satanic or devil-themed frescos, but to fascinate.
The Limbourg Brothers
The final artists of note are the brothers Limbourg. Jean Paul and Herman Limbourg may very well have created some of the most dramatic art to feature the Devil in the early northern Renaissance. In 1410, the Limbourgs were commissioned by the Duke de Berry to illuminate his additionally commissioned Les Belles Heures, a book of hours (Link 172). The Devil appears throughout the illuminated book numerous times. One of the more compelling images is Satan’s battle with Michael. Link points out that this illustration is quite unexceptional in regards to theme, composition, technique and color, but it “marks a turning-point in the depiction of Satan and became a much-copied prototype” (175). This Devil has a tail, bat-wings and talons (Figure 27). His face, however, is more human, as is his body. His expression is very naturalistic as he is being chained by Michael. “This is the first depiction in which Michael and Satan occupy roughly the same plane of reality. This Satan is no beast: he has a human face because he is Lucifer after the Fall who contains the spirit of the Lucifer he once had been” (175). This is not to say that Satan’s other guises disappeared after the Limbourgs work was made. In fact many artists, such as Raphael, continued to create lavish depictions of Satan as the dragon locked in his epic battle with Michael (Figure 28). Raphael did, however, later create a Satan figure in what Link contends follows the Limbourg model (Figure 29). It was due in large part to the departures from traditional forms which the Limbourg’s and Raphael strove for that served to dissipate the traditional iconography that had been associated with Satan in art (175).
Another excellent example of an innovative Devil painting comes from another of the Limbourg brothers’ work. In this case, the piece comes from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berri, another Book of Hours commissioned by the Duke de Berry. This illumination is simply titled Hell (Figure 30). Originally this illumination was not intended for inclusion in the Duke de Berry’s second Book of Hours. One reason for its reluctant inclusion may be because, as some scholars contend, this piece was a personal work for the Limbourgs (Link 176). Perhaps this does show “pure imagination” as Link writes, but it may simply be an exercise in what real fire and brimstone look like (176). “The demonic iconography is strongly Italian in this miniature, but it is presented with an attention to detail that is thoroughly northern . . . in its enthusiastic specificity” (Cuttler 31). Satan here is horned and hairy and features noticeable elongated teeth. He appears to be lying on a bed of hot coals while his hands and feet clutch at small, helpless souls. He seems to be spitting fire which burns; tumbling souls are perhaps falling into his mouth for consumption and digestion, as with some previous works. The Devil is nude, his genitalia are hidden but still pronounced and his only adornment is a large crown sitting on his head, perhaps symbolizing him as the King of Hell. Demons torture various souls around the Lord of Lies while still others work massive bellows that serve to fan the flames under the bed Satan lies upon. This work depicts a hell that was a summary of what both hell and Satan looked like up until the Limbourgs execution of this piece (Link 178). The inspiration for this scene likely came from an Irish story described in Tundale’s Vision dating from the 12th century (178). In this story, the Devil is described as inhaling and exhaling the souls of the damned as he is sitting upon a grate over hot coals that are fanned by demons working bellows (178).
Studying the Devil in any fashion is a vexing task. There has never been a defined set of rules ever created or endorsed by the Christian church which gave charge to how the fiend should appear. Artists through the ages have had to look elsewhere to find inspiration regarding his form. Artists like Dürer, Gislebertus, and Giotto relied on literature, folklore, or even earlier iconographical images of the Devil by yet earlier artists for their own works. Those who predated the rise of the Gothic and Renaissance art ages had to look to foreign gods and devils for their artistic inspirations for the Devil. Regardless, Satan’s story has fascinated humanity for over two millennia and will continue to do so for generations to come. And while the Church may never have given the world a reasonable description of what the Devil looks like, the artists who claim membership in that religion have created a wealth of powerful images that have helped to mold and shape the Devil’s image from the early 4th century to the present. It is due to the inspiring works and daring experimentation of these artists that the Devil has been provided such a rich visual history. Whether as the central figure in a massive panorama or as a small, insignificant figure in a modest diptych, the Devil has shown us that he is ever present and while not always prevalent in the piece, his sinister wickedness always lurks in the background regardless of how ridiculous or inane some of his renderings have been in recent centuries. The greatest ruse the Devil ever generates is to make the world forget he exists, but not so long as the works of men like Grien, Signorelli, and the Limbourg brothers yet survive. Although the fiend has been made into a parody of himself, art of ages past has given a glimpse of the terror he inspired, the world he helped to influence, and the masterpieces he has inspired.
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