The Details in the Devil
Updated: Dec 8, 2022
Greetings Night Things of Los Angeles, it is your infernal guide through the yawing darkness, Astor, coming to you in flesh and spirit from this most accursed abode, Speakeasy Tattoo. Today I want to spend some time talking discussing someone near and dear to me, a great inspiration, subject of a million tattoos, and daddy to end all daddies; the Devil.
When attempting to visualize the Big D himself what do we picture in our mind’s eye? Is it a horned and behooved Mephistopheles, or is it a Byronic chain smoking badboy with a leather jacket and an 8 pack that could carve marble? It’s an interesting question if we really attempt to follow the money. The Devil is meant to be the embodiment of evil yet how do we as a culture personify something so abstract, let alone represent it visually? It’s a challenge that has invigorated artists for centuries, and today in this City of Angels, we are going to spend some time examining it.
Just me having a normal one
It is said that no artistic representation of the Devil was produced before the 6th century CE and the Second Council of Constantinople. I won’t bore you with all the dull churchy details as they are dull and churchy but the long and short of it is that this particular Ecumenical Council was the one at which the figure of Satan was certified as a key part of church doctrine. Before this, the figure of the ‘capital D’ Devil wasn’t confirmed to exist by the clergy in any official capacity so there would have been no need for visual depictions of him, at least as far as the church was concerned. Post 553 however, the devil, demons, and depictions of hell became de rigueur as horned horrors made their way into all aspects of visual culture. While other subjects in art were depicted to a standard (Jesus was meant to /look/ like the medieval European ideal of Jesus, saints like saints, angels like angels, each with their symbolic attribute and their assigned robe color, you get the idea), the abode of the damned and its Fell Prince were subject to no such regulation and as such artists where allowed to go absolutely hog wild facilitating a space for personalized creativity that was otherwise heavily policed in medieval art.
Depictions of the Devil were wide-ranging and highly versatile at this time. Since the Devil isn’t described appearance-wise in the Bible, artists could exercise choice in how he was depicted without too much pushback from the church. Since art in medieval Europe mostly functioned as instructional illustrations for the church with Hell needing to be depicted as the ultimate counter to the promise of Heaven, as long as he was scary/repulsive/appropriately evil-looking, you got yourself a Devil. Images of the Devil
were often inspired by pre-Christian deities such as Dionysius or Pan, both of whom were frequently depicted with a set of horns and/or cloven hooves, and who embodied traits that would have been understood by the masses to be in opposition to Christianity.
Animals too could be understood as stand-ins for demonic entities. Goats were a popular go to, most likely as an oblique reference to Pan, but they were far from the only beastie to be given this treatment. Pigs were considered unclean and symbols of gluttony and lust, and so a devil depicted as or displaying traits of a pig would thereby inherit these associations. Similarly toads/frogs were not only considered unclean but they came with the bonus association of disaster and misfortune as one of the famous 10 plagues of Egypt, symbolizing God’s displeasure. Bats and bat-winged creatures were referred to in bestiaries as ‘of the devil’ due to their association with night, as well as being a handy contrast to the bird-winged angels. It is also important to note that the seemingly erratic nature of a bat’s flight, coupled with their upside-down roosting, led to an implication of an inversion of order and embracing chaos.
And then there’s the snake.
The image of the snake is so thoroughly intertwined with the demonic that I don’t feel like I even need to go into the specifics, but suffice it to say that even though the particular serpent who tempted Eve wasn’t ever referred to as the Devil in Genesis, the poor innocent snake will forever be associated with the Adversary. Sorry bud.
Whether it be beast which crawleth on its belly, or dread spirit of the sky, the Devil has taken on the aspects of that which frightens us for a millennium and a half. In this way Christendom was not only warned by repulsion against the dangers of sin, but conversely, by their fear of damnation, against that which could harm them (snakes, uncooked pork, etc.). And that’s it. Except no it’s not because it’s at this point I realized this topic was simply too big for one blog post and so fellow sin-eaters tune in next week as we explore the how the devil, the dragon, the father of lies, the great deceiver went from bestial monstrosity to abject stud.