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Devil's Gonna Get You!

Updated: Feb 4

13th c. capital of a sinner being devoured, Saint Pierre, Chauvigny, France

A nasty case of Covid pretty much bankrupted my energy for the entire month of January, so I thought I'd honor my having been through hell by sharing with you some of my favorite medieval demons

Demons were essential artistic elements of most churches in the Middle Ages. They were there to warn the sinners (that is, just about anyone who looked) of the temptations of worldly life and why the faithful must resist those temptations, or repent.

The capital above, in Chauvigny, is more of a monster than the average demon, but it's demonstrating with great enthusiasm a key punishment of Hell, which is definitely a demon's job. It has two bodies and one head (called "monocephalic" and "bicorporal"). Demons are used in art like this to evoke fears in their audience of being dehumanized and reduced to soul-less flesh (like animals). Hell is a place where one is devoured prey for an eternity.

Hellmouth with Satan and Sinners, Narbonne Cathedral, late 13th or early 14th century

While demons eating sinners raw was a typical scene, even more popular was sinners being cooked. This carving is the base for a statue (probably of Mary). The hellmouth has Satan sitting like a relaxed chef, watching his dishes simmer and baste. Of particular interest here is the sinner being roast on a spit, a punishment for homosexual acts, while on the right, in the cauldron, is a woman being boiled alive for heterosexual lust.

Fresco depicting the punishment of the Gluttonous, St. Cecile, Albi, late 15th c.

The demons in this fresco are part of a Last Judgment scene which is two stories high and about 40 feet wide at the front of the cathedral. These demons are charged with punishing sinners who were gluttonous, and they appear to really love their job. The pot is overflowing with sinners, and they are squishing more and more into the crowded, flaming cauldron. As in the Chauvigny capital above, they have reptilian bodies, but their faces have grotesque human expressions. Their attitude reinforces the idea that there is no mercy or compassion for sinners in Hell, so one had better settle up one's penitence bill quickly, before it's too late.

Mosaic detail of the punishment of sinners, Baptistry of San Giovanni, Florence, 14th century

The Satan-enthroned-in-Hell motif was very popular. In the massive mosaic dome in Florence, Satan is positioned in a mockery of Christ in Majesty, which is the center-piece of most Last Judgment art for churches. Where minor demons can only eat one sinner at a time, the boss has three orifices for consuming in his head, and a throne with two more mouths to gobble some more. Noteworthy in this work that the artist has gone to some effort to make it clear that Hell is subterranean. with wormlike creatures and toads to help with the torments.

Fresco of Satan Ruling Hell, Collegiate Church of San Gimignano, 14th century

The depictions of Satan consuming sinners are disturbing enough, but there are also many which feature Satan excreting them. Some are shown in his belly, while others are being disgorged from his nether parts, with a nice assist from a demon who is, perhaps coincidentally, brown. Subterranean creatures here are snake-like and rodent-like (upper right). The great barbecue continues in the bottom tier.

Satan enthroned, by Tadeo da Bartolo, ca. 1410, Collegiate Church of San Gimignano

The church in San Gimignano is so impressive that it has more than one fresco of demons in Hell. This one helpfully labels the sins next to their punishments. On Satan's right (our left) demons punish the sin of Pride (La Superbia) and on his left they punish Envy (La Vidia; Invidia is the usual spelling). Satan is ingesting, choking and excreting sinners as fast as he can (his nether parts have a face, so it's more like spitting than excreting). Previous excretions are neatly labeled, standing in the pit below him: Simon Magus, Herod, Nero, and Cain are legible to me. Thus, quite literally here, are the mighty who have fallen.

Satan enthroned, 13th century capital, St. Pierre, Chauvigny

In tight spaces, like a Romanesque capital, the Satan enthroned scene can be restrained to its bare essentials: Satan, seated, with his flaming hell-mouth positioned below his bottom, flanked by two demons conferring with the boss on whether they're tormenting sinners correctly.

Demons Punishing a Gossiper, 12th century (heavily restored), St. Medard, Thoars, France

Medieval church art often represents sins and their punishments explicitly to help even the illiterate (and impressionable) understand concretely that their seemingly small vices result in dire pain. Here, two horned demons blind and choke a gossiper.

Punishment of Avarice, Saint Pierre of Aulnay, 12th century

The sin of avarice was frequently represented by the hanging suicide of Judas, with his 13 pieces of silver in a money-bag suspended from his neck. In this example, Judas is set upon by four devouring demons, one of which looks like a deranged rabbit. Keep in mind that these capitals would have been vividly painted in their heyday. I would like to know what color these demons were.

Demons Hanging Judas, 12th century, Saint Lazare, Autun

Here is a different treatment of the same subject. The workshop that made the Autun capitals and tympanum were masters of stone carving. In this instance, the demons appear to be suffering as much or more as Judas.

Demons Punishing a Blasphemer, late 12th c., Southern France, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Also perfectly explicit is the capital illustrating the punishment for the sin of blasphemy. One demon is restraining the sinner while another tears out his tongue. In this piece, I find it distressing that there appear to be an extra set of claws holding down the sinner, with no discernible body attached to them.

Mosaic of Demons sorting the Dead, Baptistry of Florence, 14th century

My students would often ask me, "Why are demons green and blue?" The popular answer I'd find in various sources was that they were representing the snakes and green men revered by pagans, to emphasize that no one should revert to the pagan practices of their ancestors. This is largely debunked, though. A better answer is that demons, as agents of punishment beneath the earth after death, are the colors of decayed flesh, and sometimes the red and orange of flames. The two above are prime examples, green and grey; they tower over the sinners awakening from their coffins on Judgment Day.

Three-faced Demon, 12th century, facade of the Basilica di San Pietro, Tuscania

One can be forgiven for thinking about paganism (as we know it) when looking at demons like this one (possibly Satan). He has his snake entwining his arms, and sticks out his tongue on his forward face. His side-faces are spewing foliage (inspiring our modern concept of The Green Man, though that theory has been fairly debunked by Alex Woodcock), and pomegranate fruit (symbol of eternal life) blossom around him. However, we've seen the three-faced Satan before, and the snakes are common accoutrements in scenes depicting Hell.

In this post, I've kept mostly to depictions of demons as they are shown in scenes of Last Judgment and Hell itself. In my next post, I'll focus more on demons as they are shown in representation of particular stories from the Bible. Thank you for reading, wear a mask, and stay tuned!


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