Coppo di Marcovaldo, The Infernal Chaos around Satan, c. 1270

Exploring Satan and…Art of the Devil

The text below is the excerpt of the book Art of the Devil (ASIN: B016XN122W), written by Arturo Graf, published by Parkstone International.

EVERY one is familiar with the poetic myth of the rebellion and fall of the angels. This myth, which inspired in Dante some of the most beautiful lines of the Inferno and in Milton an unforgettable episode of Paradise Lost, was, by various Fathers and Doctors of the Church, variously fashioned and coloured; but it has no foundation other than the interpretation of a single verse of Isaiah and of certain rather obscure passages in the New Testament. Another myth, of far different but no less poetic character, accepted by both Hebrew and Christian writers, tells of angels of God who, becoming enamoured of the daughters of men, sinned with them, and in punishment for their sin were thrust out of the Kingdom of Heaven and from angels turned into demons. This second myth received lasting consecration in the verses of Moore and of Byron. Each of these myths represents the demons as fallen angels, and connects their fall with a sin: pride or envy in the first case, criminal love in the second. But this is the legend, not the history, of Satan and his companions.

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, The Bewitched Man, a scene from El Hechizado por Fuerza (’’The Forcibly Bewitched’’), 1798, Art of the Devil, Satan
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, The Bewitched Man, a scene from El Hechizado por Fuerza (’’The Forcibly Bewitched’’), 1798. Oil on canvas, 42.5 x 30.8 cm. The National Gallery, London, United Kingdom.

The origins of Satan, considered as the universal personification of evil, are far less epic and at the same time far more remote and profound. Satan is anterior, not only to the God of Israel, but to all other gods, powerful and feared, that have left a memory of themselves in the history of mankind; he did not fall headlong down from heaven, but leaped forth from the abysses of the human soul, coeval with those dim deities of earliest ages, of whom not even a stone recalls the names, and whom men outlived and forgot. Coeval with these, and often confused with these, Satan begins as an embryo, like all things that live; and only by slow degrees does he grow and become a person. The law of evolution, which governs all beings, governs him also.

Dualism takes on form and special characteristics, first in Judaism, next in Christianity; and though in other religions, even in the primitive ones, there may be discerned a sort of phantom of Satan, a sort of form which—to borrow a term from chemistry— might be called allotropic, a form variously named, sometimes enlarged, the real Satan, with the qualities that are peculiarly his own and that go to make up his personality, belongs only to these two religions, and more particularly to the second one.

Abû Ma’shar, The Book of Nativities (Kitab al-mawalid), Art of the Devil, Satan
Abû Ma’shar, The Book of Nativities (Kitab al-mawalid). Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, France.

Little by little, Satan grows and becomes complete. Zechariah represents him as an enemy and accuser of the chosen people, eager to defraud them of divine grace. In the Book of Wisdom, Satan is a disturber and corrupter of the work of God; he it was who through envy impelled our first parents to sin. He is the poison that wastes and defiles creation. But in the Book of Enoch, and particularly in the older part of it, the demons are merely enamoured of the daughters of men and thus entangled in the snares of matter and sense, as if one sought by a fiction of this sort to avoid acknowledging an order of beings originally diabolic; while in the later portion of the same book the demons are giants born of these unions.

Satan reaches the highest degree of his development and of his power in the Middle Ages, in that troubled and unhappy period wherein Christianity shows itself most vigorous. He reaches maturity at the same time as the various institutions and peculiar types of that life, and when Gothic art flourishes in lofty-spired temples, the myth of Satan flourishes also, gloomy and stupendous, in the consciousness of the Christian peoples. After the close of the thirteenth century he begins to decline and languish, as do the papacy, scholasticism, the feudal spirit and the spirit of asceticism. Satan is the child of sadness. In a religion like that of the Greeks, all radiant with life and colour, he could not have held any prominent role; in order that he may grow and thrive, there is need of shadows, of the mysteries of sin and of sorrow, which like a funeral shroud enfold the religion of Golgotha. Satan is the child of fear; and terror dominates the Middle Ages.

Luca Giordano, The Fall of the Rebel Angels, c. 1655, Art of the Devil, Satan
Luca Giordano, The Fall of the Rebel Angels, c. 1655. Oil on canvas, 83 x 60 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

Seized with an unconquerable dread, the souls of men fear nature, pregnant with portents and monsters; they fear the physical world, opposed to the world of the spirit, and its irreconcilable foe; they fear life, the perpetual incentive and tinderbox of sin; they fear death, behind which yawn the uncertainties of eternity. Dreams and visions torment men’s minds. The ecstatic hermit, kneeling long hours in prayer before the doorway of his cell, sees flying through the air awe-inspiring armies and riotous hordes of apocalyptic monsters; his nights are lighted up by flaming portents; the stars are distorted and bathed in blood, sad omens of impending evil. In seasons of pestilence that mow men down like ripened stalks of grain are seen darts, hurled by invisible hands, cleaving the air and disappearing with hissing sounds; and ever and anon, across the face of terror-stricken Christendom runs, like a tremor presaging the world’s end, the sinister word that Antichrist is already born and is about to open the fearful drama foretold in the Apocalypse.

Hans Memling, Triptych of Terrestrial Vanity and Celestial Redemption (detail), c. 1490, Art of the Devil
Hans Memling, Triptych of Terrestrial Vanity and Celestial Redemption (detail), c. 1490. Wood. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg, France.

Satan grows in the melancholy shadows of vast cathedrals, behind the massive pillars, in the recesses of the choir; he grows in the silence of the cloisters, invaded by the stupor of death; he grows in the embattled castle, where a secret remorse is gnawing the heart of the grim baron; in the hidden cell, where the alchemist tests his metals; in the solitary wood, where the sorcerer weaves his nightly spells; in the furrow, wherein the starving serf casts, with a curse, the seed that is destined to nourish his lord. Satan is everywhere; countless are they who have seen him, countless they who have conversed with him.

Such hatred was not, indeed, unjustified, since in hating him one hated the author of all evil, and the more one loved Christ the more one ought to hate His enemy. But in this case also, fear and hatred produced their customary results, extravagance in opinions and exaggeration in beliefs. The figure of Satan had to suffer the consequences of this; and this excess, being noted by some one of more moderate spirit, gave rise to the proverb, “The Devil is not so black as he is painted”…

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