The way we see the Devil is the result of a series of ideologies and fears that have accompanied humanity for millennia.
The Tempter, Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub, The Fallen Angel, The Devil. We’ve given many names to this enigmatic, sometimes terrifying, and mysterious entity that we consider to be the incarnation of evil, ruler of Hell, and tormentor of humanity. However, the way we see him is the product of a series of ideologies, fears, and social revolutions that have accompanied humanity for millennia. And the best way to see the evolution of this figure, as well as the historical and social context behind it, is through its visual depictions in art.
Coppo di Marcovaldo, The Hell (1225-1274). This section of the dome at the Baptistery of St. John in Florence represents sinners being tormented by a monstrous creature that is thought to be the Devil.
Agostino Musi, The Carcass (The Witches Procession) (1520-1527) In this piece, the Devil is represented as a hybrid monster with animal features.
Thomas Stothard, Satan Summoning His Legions, (1790). This painting represents Satan's tragic fate, described in John Milton's Paradise Lost.
The Devil as we understand him nowadays can be traced back to an ancient and somehow forgotten religion that had a dual vision of life: Zoroastrianism. In this religion, the two main forces were Ahura Mazda, the creator and embodiment of justice, truth, and benevolence, and Angra Mainyu, his polar opposite, representing deceit, destruction, and evil thoughts. This last entity could be understood as a proto-devil, because the dual vision of life of Zoroatrianism ended up influencing other religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
“The Devil” card from the Rider-Waite tarot deck. This depiction was inspired by the pagan god Baphomet. Among its many meanings, it is believed to represent the pleasures of earthly life.
William Blake, The Number of the Beast Is 666 (1805). Besides writing poetry, William Blake created engravings with metaphysical and religious themes.
However, the concept of the Devil as an incarnation of evil and sin appeared in the Middle Ages, when Christianity gained strength in Europe. Here is when things start getting a little tricky. Before that era, Judaism describes the figure of Satan in the books of Job and Zechariah as an “accuser,” that is, an angel that tempted humanity to test them and, in case they failed, reveal them as sinners before God. Therefore, he wasn’t necessarily God's nemesis. This connotation was mainly given by Christianity, especially because of episodes from the New Testament, such as Satan’s temptation of Jesus Christ or the whole Book of Revelations. However, the Bible barely describes the Devil’s physical features, and that was quite an issue during the Middle Ages, because the best way to teach the Bible to an illiterate population was through images.
Joseph Noel Paton, Satan Watching the Sleep of Christ (1821-1901). This painting represents the Biblical passage of Satan tempting Christ in the desert. He is depicted as a human-like being.
Salvador Dalí, Hell Canto 17- The Black Devil (1960-1964). This painting belongs to a series inspired by the Divine Comedy. Unlike other representations of the Devil, Dalí's devil possesses female features.
Francisco de Goya, The Great He-Goat (1819-1823). From Goya's Black Paintings, this mural represents a group of witches gathering around Satan, who adopts a goat-like shape.
So, they decided to take imagery from other religions and their deities –which they saw as demonic idols– and fused them to create beast-like monsters that could be identified as the Devil. Finally, after many creepy yet effective experiments, the image that prevailed was that of the half man, half goat creature we associate today with the Tempter, especially because that figure resembled the Greek god Pan, a beloved deity among “pagans” that represented earthly pleasures and freedom. Therefore, it was a way of showing how even the most beloved idol would succumb to the power of God.
Francisco de Goya, Witches’ Sabbath (1798). In this piece, Goya uses the Devil as a means to make fun of how superstition is used to inspire fear in us.
Philip James de Loutherbourg, The Angel Binding Satan (1740-1812). In religious imagery, Satan is often depicted being defeated by the archangel Michael.
Henry Fuseli, Satan Starting from the Touch of Ithuriel’s Lance (1779). Paradise Lost inspired different depictions of the Devil. This painting represents the moment the angel Ithuriel touches Satan, who had turned into a toad, with his lance and makes him return to his original shape.
For centuries, the Devil was depicted like this, and his image didn’t really change until John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost. This was one of the first times when Satan was depicted as a complex, tragic, and rebellious character, endowed with a humanity that wasn’t present in previous representations. Since then, the Devil started featuring more human features, and rather than being scary or beastly, he became a charmer and a rebel, almost like a proto-antihero. Also, more than tormenting people, he convinced them to commit sins and represented humanity’s hidden desire for absolute freedom.
Andrés Serrano, Heaven and Hell (1984). In this image, Andrés Serrano criticizes the double standards of the Catholic Church regarding violence against women, showing how evil can actually disguise itself as good.
Jerome Witkin, The Devil as a Tailor (1978). In this painting, a man whose features resemble cartoonish representations of the Devil sews a Nazi uniform. Here the Devil is shown as a human who brings evil to Earth through simple actions.
Ironically, as the Devil started being linked with humanity, it appeared less and less in art. Or, at least, that’s what it looks like at first sight. Although from the nineteenth century onwards it’s rare to see the Devil, when we see him, it is as a symbol of humanity’s worst side and its secret desires, because our perception of the world has changed as well. Particularly in the twentieth century, after seeing the worst of society in two world wars, as well as in other massacres, artists realized we shouldn’t search for evil in an almighty enemy of God. We just have to look around us, at the brutal and heartbreaking horrors humanity commits to see that we have the potential to be the actual embodiment of evil.
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