Many if not all religions are based on the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and in many cases these have become personified in terms of saints or angels, and devils. One of the puzzling aspects of Goethe’s Faust, which I’m currently tracing in paintings, is that Goethe described himself as being “most decidedly non-Christian”, but set his play in a stereotypical Christian universe, with Mephistopheles as devil.
In this article and the next, I look at depictions of devils in Western painting from the Renaissance on. I will focus on paintings of a devil or the devil, including personifications of evil such as Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub and others – ‘fallen angels’ and what are best seen as the antithesis of angels, although Goethe would perhaps have argued that they were complements, two sides of a coin.
As motifs in paintings, these commonly occur in three Christian narratives: the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, where the devil is usually shown as a serpent in keeping with the account in the book of Genesis; the temptation of Christ when he was in the Wilderness following his baptism, in Gospel accounts, where the devil is usually referred to as Satan; the temptation of saints, particularly Saint Anthony, which has been a very popular motif drawn from the Golden Legend and other early Christian sources.
Painted in 1430-32, Stefano di Giovanni’s St Anthony Beaten by the Devils identifies the saint by his Tau crucifix. Three devils, clearly fallen angels by their wings, are beating him with clubs. Those devils are fairly conventional figures, part animal and part man, with horns, which were probably based on the tradition established in earlier miniatures.
Michelangelo’s The Torment of Saint Anthony (c 1487–88) shows Saint Anthony being held aloft by ten or so devils, including a weird fish with many spines and a trunk-like snout. The devil at the lower left of the group has breasts and a face in its perineum, which almost makes it double-ended.
Around 1500, it was Hieronymus Bosch’s extraordinary imagination which established a new and far richer vocabulary of devils. I show here just two details of particular interest.
In The River to Hell, a panel from Bosch’s Visions of the Hereafter, this devil is a chimera of human, winged angel and nightmare beast. Elsewhere he shows pig-like creatures dressed in nun’s habits, composite animal species of all kinds, and more.
The left wing of Bosch’s Haywain Triptych shows the Garden of Eden, with three scenes depicting the Fall of Man, read from the back to the front. Near the centre, Adam and Eve are stood at the foot of a large apple tree. Part way up its trunk is a serpent with a human head and arms, which is offering them an apple.
In the heavens above, God (the Father) sits in a bright golden area, holding a blue globe. Below him are a great number of winged angels, who are tumbling from the clouds. As they descend, some appear to have transformed into winged creatures and daemons, and some have fallen into the distant sea.
Bosch’s devils were copied by many artists during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but others like Matthias Grünewald were inspired to develop their own inventions. These are seen here in the right panel showing The Temptation of St Anthony, painted in about 1515. These are mainly beastly (or birdly!), and as inventive at those of Bosch.
In other contexts, Renaissance depictions of devils were more closely based on the concept of the fallen angel. Bonifazio Veronese’s St Michael Vanquishing the Devil from 1530 shows a fire-breathing humanoid with more draconian wings, which may have descended from older images in which the Devil (with a definite article) is shown as a straight dragon. This depicts a scene from the book of Revelation. (This is not the great Paolo Veronese, but a painter in Venice whose work was influential on Tintoretto.)
In his Temptation of Christ from 1578-81, Tintoretto’s Satan is almost indistinguishable from a regular angel as he tempts Christ to turn rocks into bread to relieve his hunger.
The Devil in Tintoretto’s later aerial spectacular of The Archangel Michael in Combat with Lucifer is rather harder to see clearly, but appears to have reverted to more bestial form, possibly with multiple heads, as it is impaled by Saint Michael’s spear.
Bosch’s nightmare menagerie lived on in the work of other painters, such as Maerten de Vos’s Temptation of Saint Anthony from 1591-4. One of the creatures in the right foreground is a portmanteau of human and bird, wears an inverted funnel on its head, and is reading sheet music – all features which had been developed by Bosch almost a century before.
Even Jan Brueghel the Elder combines a cavalcade of more traditional figures with a foreground of more bizarre ones derived from Bosch, including an old person’s head with four human legs, and a bird with two heads, one of a cockerel and the other a duck with a clarinet-like bill.
The next stage in the evolution of devils came in the late eighteenth century, as Romanticism gained a Gothic tone. This is best seen in the paintings of Henry Fuseli (Johann Heinrich Füssli).
Fuseli’s The Nightmare of 1781 was exhibited at the Royal Academy, and remains the work by which he is best known. Its devil is now a daemonic incubus squatting on the torso of a young woman. Lurking in the darkness to the left is the head of a black horse, whose eyes appear unseeing. The incubus stares directly at the viewer in a manner which arouses discomfort. These are images derived from the increasingly popular accounts of witchcraft.
Many of Fuseli’s later paintings conjured up similar nightmare visions, here in Satan Calling up His Legions from 1802.
Francisco Goya’s Witches’ Sabbath from 1797-98 is perhaps the clearest vision of a “witches’ sabbath” from this period. His devil is a billy goat with lyre-shaped horns and evil human-like posture.
Perhaps the most prolific painter of devils was William Blake, whose work starts the second and final article.