On BBC Four this week, historian Alastair Sooke tackled the vexed question of how the devil got his horns? Did he always look as we imagine him? Well, if we go back to the start of Christianity – there are some surprises in store.
Sooke starts in Ravenna, the Italian town that was the capital of the western Roman empire in its final declining years. Christians in Ravenna were still deliberating about the nature of Christ’s divinity – let alone the devil’s physical appearance. But in one church, there is a depiction of the devil in a mosaic. Christ is seated in purple like a wealthy Roman in a toga. On one side is an angel in red and on the other side is one in blue. Strangely, it’s the angel in blue that is the devil – because in the 6th century AD, blue was viewed as a more sinister colour than red (not everybody agrees with this analysis – though if it was true it would be the first image of the devil).
The devil is an angel in early writings – beautiful Lucifer who was cast out of paradise. He’s not mentioned in Genesis and details of him are scant in the rest of the bible. Yet we have a huge artistic tradition showing Satan as a diabolical tyrant ruling over hell. So where did this imagery come from? Off to Venice then – where Sooke is mesmerised by the huge 11th century Byzantine influenced mosaics in Santa Maria Assunta.
Heaven and hell are depicted. A blue figure with flowing white hair sits at the centre – a grotesque figure. Is he the devil? Well, maybe. But on his lap is a much smaller figure in a toga with his hand raised in benediction – who is he? Possible Judas? Sooke is convinced the blue figure is the devil – but he’s a custodian of hell acting on God‘s behalf, not an enemy at war with the Almighty.
Finding human-like depictions of the devil challenged the early church but eventually they settled on previously worshiped pagan deities. For the first millennium of Christianity, the church was still engaged in mopping up pockets of paganism. How better to discredit pagans than turning their Gods into the devil. The imagery of the Egyptian god Bes – a lucky amulet for centuries – became a hideous Satan. The Greek satyr with hairy legs, pointy ears and mischievous faces was transformed into the Lord of Evil.
A figure that was previously a marginal figure in the bible, often there to test and accuse – a kind of bureaucrat acting on God’s behalf – now becomes a monstrous figure acting in his own right. As the Middle Ages progressed, the devil transformed into the master of a realm distinct from heaven – and in hostile opposition to it. The Winchester Psalter in the mid-12th century showed the devil with a vast mouth swallowing up kings, queens and great secular figures. At Lincoln Cathedral, there’s an orgy of sado-masochism over the porch leaving little to the imagination as to what hell would be like for sinners.
Mystery plays, originating in France 900 years ago, took the idea of Lucifer to new extremes as lay people let their imaginations run riot. During the 13th and 14th centuries, it was the mystery plays that rapidly evolved what we visualise today as the devil. At a time when plague or hunger could wipe out whole populations, the hand of evil was seen everywhere by ordinary people. All the woes serfs suffered had to be a torment inflicted, not something random without a cause.
In the Baptistry in Florence, a 14th century mosaic of Satan is still blue in the face with a green body and there are two huge horns and animalistic ears, created by the artist Coppo di Marcovaldo. In Padua, Sooke views the fresco of Giotto bringing the last judgment to life – painted just a few decades later. His devil is eating and excreting victims while around him, sinners are being skewered and nearby, Judas Iscariot is hanging from a tree.
But Giotto’s devil is not his finest accomplishment – in fact, it’s rather mediocre compared to the amazing naturalistic depictions of other biblical figures. Around the same time as Giotto, it was the poet Dante who really took the concept of the devil forward. In the Divine Comedy, hell is a series of concentric circles with a giant devil embedded in ice at the centre. Dante’s devil is a three dimensional figure who is the father of sorrow and pained by his fate. This fallen angel of Dante would go on to inspire Milton and Gustav Dore more than Giotto’s comic book figure.
Siena is then visited by Sooke, which has several images painted by Luca Signorelli of devilish activity including a very eerie painting of Anti-Christ active on earth. A false prophet on a podium being advised by the devil. It’s believed this Anti-Christ was the 15th century preacher turned dictator of Florence, Savonarola, whom Signorelli despised. The demons are brightly coloured including the painter’s self portrait as a blue devil with a single horn protruding out of his forehead.
Sooke concludes that the devil appears to have gone on a journey from beautiful angel cast out of heaven to a vile demon. The historian concludes that if god is western culture’s superego then the devil is our id.