The Details in the Devil II: Stupid Sexy Satan

Greetings Los Angeles and other travelers of the stygian path, it is your fell priest Astor, preaching to you once again from the saturnine altar of Speakeasy Tattoo, and today we continue with our merry jaunt through the expansive visual culture (and, by extension, tattoo culture) surrounding Lucifer.



Last week we explored the Medieval perception of the devil and the demonic and so let us continue onward into the Renaissance and early modern Europe to discover how the Devil went from this:

to this .

As the Medieval gave way to the Renaissance, Europe’s appetite for the demonic only continued to grow. Alongside innovations in print, and particularly after the translation of the ancient Corpus Hermeticum into Latin in 1471, came the desire for occult esoterica. Most notable of these texts, for our purposes, were the witch hunting materials which were published as a result of changing attitudes toward witchcraft in Europe. In previous centuries, popes had specifically forbidden the burning of supposed witches, and had drawn a distinction between ‘white magic’ and ‘black magic’. However, in 1484, at the request of a Tyrolean clergyman who was dismissed by his ecclesiastical colleagues as ‘senile and crazy’, Pope Innocent VIII wrote a papal bull which began, “Many persons of both sexes, unmindful of their own salvation and straying from the Catholic Faith, have abandoned themselves to devils, incubi and succubi,” and went on to authorize the punishment of suspected witches. Still not satisfied, the aforementioned clergyman, Dominican Inquisitor Heinrich Kramer, composed his views on what he believed to be an epidemic of witchcraft into a treatise on their eradication: Malleus Maleficarum, 1486. This went to print amid the fomenting Protestant Reformation, which was followed by the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Amidst societal change and religious fervor, still more witch hunting documents were circulated, which illustrated witches and other such heretics cavorting with the devil in every conceivable manner (and I do mean every conceivable manner). These glimpses of sin must have been titillating, but lest we give the witch-burners too much credit for igniting Europe’s occult curiosities during this time, let us mention a few other notable individuals who fueled the (hell) fire: Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, an Italian nobleman and philosopher developed his own Christianized version of the Jewish Kabbalah and spread its teachings across the continent alongside other mysticisms, and; German alchemist and itinerant magician Johann Georg Faust, to whom a number of dubious grimoires are ascribed, and who would be the subject of arguably the ur demonic dialogue, Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, a century later. As an aside my personal favorite of the early modern grimoires which arose out of this tradition is the 1863 edition of the Dictionnaire Infernal because it is full of truly rad woodcuts depicting many key characters in the supposed hierarchy of Hell (did you know Hell has presidents? And I don’t mean just a bunch of old dead guys, like all the slave-owning heads of state, but like, “President” is apparently the lowest rank of demons, according to another grimoire, Pseudomonarchia Daemonum, 1577).

Throughout the Renaissance depictions of the devil remained classically monstrous, buoyed by nearly twelve hundred years of preceding artistic interpretations. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Satan is depicted as a giant three-faced, bat-winged demon frozen up to his nips in the ice at the center of Hell, constantly om-nom-nomming on Judas, Brutus, and Cassius— illustrating his status as the ultimate sinner (Dante was Italian after all so maybe it isn’t a big surprise that he believed two of the souls worthy of being masticated by Satan would be some of the guys who stabbed Caesar).

So what changed? Well for our purposes we can blame the popularization of sexy Satan on John Milton and his 1600’s epic Biblical fanficiton Paradise Lost.

It cannot be overstated how much Paradise Lost influenced not just English literature but culture itself. For those not in the know, the narrative recounts the Biblical story of the Fall of Man and the exile from the Garden of Eden… yet what sets it apart from a simple anglicized retelling is the characterization of Satan. First, Satan in Paradise Lost is a character, not solely an antagonistic force that is easy to understand, easy to fear, and hard to relate to, but a fully-actualized character. He is also a protagonist, arguably the protagonist of the narrative with much of the verse dedicated to his actions and perspectives. Milton’s devil is emotive and deeply charismatic, able to rally the Fallen with his rhetoric after their defeat in the war in Heaven, and embodies many of the qualities of a classic Hellenic hero, that is, a tragic hero which is defined as an otherwise heroic (not necessarily virtuous) figure, who is undone by a tragic flaw or action. While Milton’s Satan is certainly not virtuous or human, the narrative does humanize him, allowing the reader to not only understand his cause and motivations, but feel his frustration and anguish at God’s supposed hypocrisy and subsequent abandonment.

So, Paradise Lost is awesome and definitely marked a distinctive shift in how the devil could be characterized and portrayed in art. Suddenly you get brooding, contemplative devils all over the place whose principal evilness is less illustrated by sheer repulsiveness or horror but by the ability to tempt. This is no accident since Milton’s narrative focused on the devil as Eve’s (metaphorical) seducer over any other of his demonic qualities. That metaphorical seduction quickly translated to a more literal interpretation, which makes conceptual sense as an entity capable of bringing one to moral ruin might have an easier time of it if they weren’t too hard on the eyes. And as we all know, when artists are given permission to eroticize a subject, they will take it and run. Perhaps no art movement took this incentive to sexualize Satan more than the Romantics. I have, let’s say, mixed opinions on 18th century Romanticism, but like them or loathe them, the Romantic values of intense emotionality, emphasis on the affect of experiences sounding fear, horror, and awe, and the desire to capture the sublime or otherworldly aesthetic character inherent to individual perception, segued perfectly into the mindset of ‘what if Satan, but hot?’ To quote Reed Enger of arthistoryprojects.com L’Ange Dechu, or Fallen Angel (Above), may be one of the hottest artworks ever made,” and I’m inclined to agree. In the same vein is this sculpture, known as “The Genius of Evil”, commissioned to replace the sculptor’s own brother’s meditation on the same subject— a more youthful, androgynous Lucifer— which was decreed “too sublime” by church officials who worried that a sexy Satan would woo their parishioners, and was removed. Congratulations, St. Paul’s Cathedral in Liege, Belgium, you played yourselves, as you replaced a hot Satan with an even hotter Satan.

And that more or less brings us to the modern age, which is where I leave you. If I’ve done my job you can all see why the devil is sexy now and why everyone is binging all five seasons of that show where Tom Ellis plays the devil who is also a detective with the LAPD. Until next time— hang out with your horns out, Los Angeles.


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