Paintings allow us to see the visions of individual artists and they provide an insight into the way perceptions change through the centuries. Recently, I taught a course on “Angels and Demons” at the National Gallery in London and, while preparing the lectures, I was struck by the difference in the way that the Devil (Satan, Lucifer, etc.) was portrayed over the last 800 years. In contrast, angels were portrayed consistently as being androgynous, clothed in a loose full-length robe, and having large bird wings attached somewhere near the shoulder blade.
Here are some examples, with brief notes, of how the Devil has changed (all are details: for URLs to images of the complete works, see the end of this essay):
Duccio (1308/11) shows the Devil as being hairy and having bat wings (bats being regarded in folklore as sinister creatures of the night) and large pointed ears (below, upper) and Fra Angelico (c.1431) also portrays the Devil as being hairy, with tufted, pointed ears and small horns. It (I use “it” and not “he” or “she”) is seen eating humans, so is clearly very large, and appears to have near-human dentition (below, lower).
In Stefan Lochner’s (c.1435) vision of Hell, it is difficult to pick out the Devil as there are so many demonic figures of different kinds (and remember that this work was painted before the well-known works of Hieronymus Bosch). If the figure in the lower right is the Devil, it is noticeable for appearing hairy, with two horns, pointed ears, a non-human face and pronounced canine teeth. Interestingly, a second visage is present in the groin region and this appears to be a replica of the “proper” head (below).
The Devil in Bermejo’s (1468) painting has many sharp teeth, a prominent tongue, pointed ears and horns. It also has three-fingered hands emerging from serpent arms and bright, jewel-like nipples that resemble the eyes. The wings are part bat-like and part like those of a butterfly; the one leg that is clearly visible emerges from the mouth of a serpent; and the abdomen has a second, toothed mouth from which a snake is slithering (below).
Pacher’s (1471-75) Devil has bat-like wings anchored at the shoulder blade and its legs bear cloven hooves. Most of the body is human-like, as are the arms and hands, but the head is grotesque, with prominent teeth, an upturned snout, horns and large ears. Interestingly, a second face is shown, with prominent eyes and mouth and having the tail for a nose. The presence of this second visage is something shred with the previous two examples (below, and compare to the images above).
In Crivelli’s (c.1476) painting, the Devil is dark-coloured but humanoid, except for the feet, hands, bat wings and the presence on the head of horns and long, pointed ears (below).
Apart from black bird’s wings, claws instead of feet, and small horns on the head, d’Oggiono’s (c.1510) Devil has a human form, as does Bonifacio Veronese’s (c.1530) Devil, although it clearly has human feet as well as dark brown bird wings, pointed ears, and appears to be breathing fire (both are shown below).
Guido Reni (1635) paints the Devil as a muscular man, with thinning hair and a beard; the only distinguishing feature being the presence of small bat wings on the back (below, upper). de Ries (1640s) also presents the Devil as being a human figure, but the wings are large and, unusually, those of a bird (below, lower).
Further examples of the Devil taking human form come in the painting of Delacroix (1854-61), where wings are carried on a helmet (below, upper), while Epstein’s famous sculpture at Coventry Cathedral (below, lower) shows a human form with no wings, but with horns just above the ears.
The earliest images are thus of a hairy monster, capable of ingesting people, and occasionally of quite macabre appearance, developing through time into a nude human-like figure with devilish features (sharp teeth, long and pointed ears, horns, bat’s wings, claws) and then to an often powerful-looking nude human male that has only a few of these features.
Several explanations can be put forward for the transformation of the image of the Devil through time:
1. I may have been selective in my choice of paintings and sculpture, although I tried not to be.
2. 800+ years ago we had a highly developed folklore, many superstitions and myths about creatures around us, and a fear of many things in brought into Christianity from paganism, witchcraft, etc. We retain some of these fears but, as humans became increasingly able to control the environment and gain some understanding of it, we became more and more confident in our abilities as humans. This resulted in the increasingly human form taken by images of the Devil.
3. By portraying the Devil as being human (like other angels) it shows viewers that he represents the worst side of human nature, while angels show the best side (music, protection, kindness, etc.). It is a distasteful naked human male, unlike angels who are clothed, sexless, and of universal appeal. We must watch out for the Devil at all times.
Of course, there are other possible explanations, but I wanted to keep this article short. The lectures at the National Gallery were much more detailed and wide-ranging, and they promoted lively discussions, so I hope this blog post brings a similar response..
The works of art discussed:
Duccio (1308/11) The Resurrection Duomo, Siena [sometimes labelled Descent into Hell]: https://www.wikiart.org/en/duccio/descent-into-hell-1311
Fra Angelico (c.1431) Last Judgement San Marco, Florence: https://www.wikiart.org/en/fra-angelico/last-judgment
Stefan Lochner (c.1435) The Last Judgement Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Last_Judgement_(Lochner)#/media/File:The_Last_Judgement_-_Stefan_Lochner_-_Wallraf-Richartz_Museum_-_Cologne_-_Germany_2017.jpg
Bartolomé Bermejo (1468) St Michael Triumphs over the Devil National Gallery: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/bartolome-bermejo-saint-michael-triumphs-over-the-devil
Michael Pacher (1471-75) ?Saint Augustine and the Devil Bavarian State Collection, Munich: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Michael_Pacher_004.jpg
Carlo Crivelli (c.1476) Saint Michael National Gallery: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/carlo-crivelli-saint-michael
Marco d’Oggiono (c.1510) The Archangels triumphing over Lucifer Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan: http://www.wikigallery.org/wiki/painting_229178/Marco-D%27Oggiono/The-Archangels-triumphing-over-Lucifer
Bonifacio Veronese (c.1530) St Michael vanquishing the Devil Basilica dei Santa Giovanni e Paolo, Venice: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:St_Michael_Vanquishing_the_Devil_by_Bonifacio_de%27_Pitati#/media/File:Bonifazio_Veronese_San_Miguel_derrota_al_diablo_1530_Santi_Giovanni_e_Paolo_Venecia.jpg
Guido Reni (1635) The Archangel Michael defeating Satan Santa Maria della Concezione, Rome: https://www.wikiart.org/en/guido-reni/the-archangel-michael-defeating-satan-1635
Ignacio de Ries (1640s) Saint Michael the Archangel The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NewYork: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/437729
Eugène Delacroix (1854-61) St Michael defeats the Devil Saint-Sulpice, Paris: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eug%C3%A8ne_Delacroix_-_St_Michael_defeats_the_Devil_-_WGA06220.jpg
Jacob Epstein (1958) Saint Michael’s Victory over the Devil Coventry Cathedral: https://www.flickr.com/photos/amthomson/5686639646