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Welcome to the Working Week...Demons and their Jobs in Medieval Art

In my last post, I began the Herculean task of trying to give a general overview of demons in medieval art. I came away from writing that with the conclusion that demons work: they have duties in Hell, saints to harass, souls to steal, nooks to leap out from to startle sinners. Some seem to love their job, others seem to find the job rather distressing. The boss (Satan or God, take your pick) doesn't seem to appreciate all they do.

The ones who are charged with punishing sinners for eternity in hell operate under very crowded conditions. In medieval artwork, they are often crammed into the right side of the tympanum, torturing as best they can.

The Portals of Paradise, 13th century, Ourense Cathedral, Spain

The Portal with heaven and hell in Ourense is nearly identical to the one in Santiago di Compostella, except that you're allowed to photograph it. In Santiago, they take small groups in 10 minute slots, and if you have a camera they stand over you and give you menacing looks. I really thought one guard was going to rough me up just for having a serious camera, which he took to mean that I was just going to have to break the rules by stealing a shot. Anyway, you see here that demons are crowded in literally one on top of the other, each struggling to perform their sin-specific punishment with more sinners than they can deal with at one time.

Judgment Portal, Santa Maria La Blanca, Tudela, Spain, 13th century

These are just a few of the demons in Santa Maria's Judgment Portal, each tightly pocketed into a rectangular space, reminiscent of today's corporate cubicle farms. It looks as though each demon is a specialist, and is not able to just move from one punishment to the next. It's a career.

Portal of Saint Denis, outer Paris, originally 12th century, but restored (with license) in the 19th century

Some demons suffer under disorganized working conditions. This tumble of demons and sinners could leave you wondering who is whom, but for the job requirement of having animalian faces and some manner of reptilian traits. I think the theory here is that Heaven is orderly and so Hell must be chaotic. The preponderance of such scenes contradicts this. However, there is a lovely, sinuous quality to the scene which makes the sinners seem as though they are forever entangled with their tormentors.

Closeup of Sinner and Demon, Portal of Saint Denis

Further down in the tumble of sinners and demons, we find this couple. It's really hard to tell here who is tormenting whom. The demon looks as though he could use a break from the stress.

Rounding up Sinners for Damnation, Priory of Saint Genest, 12th century

Some demons appear to love their work. They make it fun. Look at these demons in Saint Genest, with their hula skirts, leading their sinners to Hell in a danse-macabre conga line.

Doom of Saint James, South Leigh, Oxfordshire, 15th century, sinners dragged to Hellmouth

Far to the north, in England, these sinners seem less inclined to dance on Judgment Day. The demons appear chipper, but they're difficult to discern in the ravaged paint that remains.

Temptation of Christ, 12th century, Abbey Church of St. Martin, Plampied-Givaudins (this replica is in the Museum of Architecture and Patrimony in Paris)

So, which demons have the best jobs? I think they're the ones who get to ham it up in representations of biblical stories. Let's take this capital, which I consider one of the rock-star masterworks of Romanesque art. It's a bit deceptive: Jesus enthroned could be a Last Judgment motif here, but there is a two-bodied dragon, acting as a throne, which points the viewer outside the frame on the front of the capital. Who are holding court on the sides? Figures I call "The Rough Demon" and "The Smooth Demon."

The "Rough" Demon, 12th century, Abbey Church of St. Martin, Plampied-Givaudins (the real one)

This is the take-no-prisoners demon. As a rock star, he's little bit Alice Cooper, a little bit Roger Daltrey,. The hair, the horns, the raptor claws, THOSE TEETH: this is the demon who makes an offer you can't refuse. And, he has a partner on the other side.

The "Smooth" Demon, 12th century, Abbey Church of St. Martin, Plampied-Givaudins (the real one)

With the appearance of the Smooth Demon, we can guess what this capital is about. He holds a stone in his claws. It's the temptation of Christ in the wilderness, but the demon has been characterized here as having two natures--the Rough Demon tells Jesus to jump from the roof (he might even push him!) and the Smooth Demon tempts Jesus to turn stones into loaves, since Jesus has been fasting for 40 days.

The Smooth Demon is swagger and elegance. Look at those high-heeled shoes! He's Prince! He's James Brown! Maybe even Mick Jagger! All he needs is a smoke machine, and he can tempt you to anything! Surely, demons like these are the elite models in Romanesque art.

Temptation in the Wilderness, St. Lazare, Autun, 12th c.

Here's a much more famous demon, taking part in the same story. He, too, is holding a stone before Jesus, urging him to change it to bread. What he lacks in style (compared to the Pamplied demons), he makes up for in enthusiasm and scale. Look how his presence is so much larger than Jesus, and the supporting angel who almost shrinks back into the shadows. The Autun sculptor loved his demons, and carved them with much more verve than the saints. His skill in creating fiery hair styles for his demons has admirers even into the 20th century.

The Fall of Simon Magus, Basilica of Saint Marie-Madeleine, Vezelay, 12th century

The Fall of Simon Magus is a great opportunity for demons to ham it up. Look at the arabesque Simon gets to do as these demons suggest he doesn't so much fall as get yanked down by them. These demons aren't quite the A-listers that the above demons are, but they probably get extra pay and attention for their Cirque-du-Soleil acrobatic work in these scenes.

Fall of Simon Magus, St. Lazare, 12th c., Autun

The Autun sculptor takes Best in Show for this Simon Magus. Simon Has two sets of wings but they prove to be of no use to him. He is like Monty Python's Flying Sheep. Saint Peter has what has got to be the biggest key to the Church in the history of the art. But it's the demon who's the scene-stealer. Look at those "What, Me Worry?" hands and face! Who couldn't love this guy?

Moses and the Golden Calf,  Basilica of Saint Marie-Madeleine, Vezelay, 12th century

There aren't nearly so many depictions of Old Testament heroes as New Testament ones, but when you have one, it's usually either about Moses or Abraham. In this capital, the demon upstages everyone and takes the Golden Calf for a victory lap. This one has a Jack Nicholson "Heeeere's Johnny" vibe--I'd suggest he climb down and let the amphetamines wear off. As with the demon acrobats in the Vezelay Simon Magus, I'd bet this guy gets extra pay for riding animals bareback.

Temptation of Adam and Eve, Worcester Cathedral misericord, 14th century

The Temptation of Adam was a very popular subject in medieval church art--it works as a comparison for the Judgment Day doom art, sort of like the "How It Started," with torturing sinners as the "How it's Going" meme. It's pretty difficult to upstage a naked lady, but this demon-serpent (with a bird torso, go figure) manages with his really hideous, buck-toothed face. He may be a character actor, but he's indispensable to the scene.

Demons Collecting the Souls of the Evil Dead, 12th century mosaic, Torcello, in the Venetian Lagoon

Some demons have jobs that are fairly working-class. They do pick-ups and deliveries. Here is a beautiful example of deadly blue demons. They are the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the Torcello Last Judgment mosaic. Perhaps interchangeable with other demons, but they get to fly, and look like charming thugs. They carry bottles for stuffing in dead souls, and something like rakes to catch them. Winged and horned, they have the aspects of animals, but they are attendants of death.

Demons Capturing a Soul of a Dying Man, 14th century Stained Glass, Cathedral of St. Martin, Bourges

Different century, but the same task. These demons are multi-colored, and they are putting their rakes to work. In these scenes, the soul is often represented as an innocent baby or child. The work these demons do requires perfect timing--they have to be there right when that soul leaves its corpse. Essential personnel.

Demons Forcing the Damned into a Hellmouth, 14th c. stained glass, St. Martin Cathedral, Bourges

In Hell-mouth and rounding-up-sinners scenes, the demons seem to function as bouncers, only, in the case of damnation, it's about making sure that everyone gets in, rather than keeping the losers out. Additional skills in sinner Tetris are appreciated. Hell is a standing-room-only kind of place, apparently.

Demon Distracting a Person Saying Their Rosary, Saint Mary's, Wilby, Suffolk, 15th century

Some demons may work in ginning up business. This bench-end shows a demon distracting a living person from praying their rosary.

A Demon bringing a temptress to Saint Benedict, 12th century, Abbey of Fleury

Tempting a saint into sin is an important role for demons to play in medieval art. For the saint (Saint Benedict here) to shine, it's necessary to show his heroic commitment to God. This demon is bringing a hot girl as a bargaining chip for his soul. So, the demon's job is much like a salesman, or a trader. Notice that Benedict's gesture of blessing looks very much like a rude Italian gesture, or even like giving the demon the single-digit salute. What is fascinating (and possibly unique) is that this capital tells the story by using the placement of figures (including what could be a dove...or a duck) is very similar to the way the Annunciation was usually represented. Benedict deflects from the demon in a way much like how the Virgin Mary retreats from the Archangel Gabriel.

Demon Harassing St. Narcissus, Sarcophagus of St. Narcissus, Church of St. Feliu (Felix), Girona, Spain, 14th century

For demonstrating the miracles of St. Narcissus on his sarcophagus in Girona, the scene calls for a burly, imposing demon to oppose a firm, but not very muscular, bishop. The size of the demon sends the message that while evil is overwhelming, a single holy man can send it fleeing with holy water in an aspergillum.

San Zeno Casting a Demon out of a Woman, Bronze Door, Basilica di San Zeno, Verona, 12th-13th century

For this scene with a saint, an energetic demon is called for: Saint Zeno is exorcising a devil from a possessed woman, and the devil has to look like he was forcefully ejected. This guy seems to love his work. He's flying upward and taking a bow at the same time. He is small, but that fits the space from which he has to emerge--an emaciated woman.

Satan and the Archangel Michael, Weighing Souls, 13th century capital, Oviedo Cathedral's Cloister

  Demons play a key role in the denouement of Judgment Day. As the theology goes, each soul arises from its resting place and proceeds, naked, to be weighed by the Archangel Michael, and to be judged as to whether they ascend to Heaven or descend to Hell. The soul's good deeds are placed in one of the pans, and the evil deeds are placed in the other. If the evil outweighs the good, then down one goes.

Weighing of the Souls, Autun Cathedral Tympanum, 12th century

 Little demon minions try to cheat, and hang on the scale. The Autun Last Judgment, which is perhaps the most famous of these scenes, shows Michael gently comforting the good soul (a naked person, here unfortunately having lost its head to damage over time). Other souls cling to his robes, terrified of Satan. Unfortunate souls cower as they wait to be taken to hell. (The modern wires are over the tympanum to keep the pigeons and swallow from nesting there.)

Weighing of Souls, Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, detail from a retable, 12th century

This Spanish painting of the weighing of souls appears to be giving the devil an ethnicity. His skin tone does not seem to be a way of making him seem more like an animal or seem like decay, and his tightly-curled hair makes him seem more African. With the centuries of tense fighting between Spanish Muslims (whose leaders often used Berber mercenaries) and Christian nobles, an African figure would evoke the contentions about heresy, and be a way of aligning Muslims with evil.

Mary and Michael Weighing Souls, Church of St. James, South Leigh, England, 14th century

This large wall-painting has suffered a lot over the centuries. It's a palimpsest of its earlier sketch of the scene and the more-detailed painting over it. The main characters (Mary and Michael) dominate the frame, with the soul and the demons nearly invisible. There are at least six demons apparent to me, and they all seem very cartoonish. One even resembles Shrek. Their work is scarcely noticed by Michael, who is all about showing off his ginormous sword.

Legend of Bad Government, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena, 14th century, by Ambrogio Lorenzetti

Last Judgment demons can inspire secular spin-offs. Most famous is Lorenzetti's "Allegory of Good and Bad Government" fresco. A satanic/demonic ruler sits enthroned as a perversion of Jesus on Judgment Day. He has horns, crossed eyes, and an epic under-bite. Blood spatters the wall behind him (or is that damage to the fresco?). He is attended by personifications of three sins: Greed, Pride, and Vanity. These characters have demons' leathery wings, but their human faces and luxurious dress make them look like courtiers to the tyrant.

Peekaboo Demon, Fleury Abbey, Pillar Base, 13th century

What are entry-level jobs for demons? Probably the role of being a jump-scare reminder that one's wandering thoughts (in church) are pathways to evil. Here is our tiniest demon, peeking out from the base of a pillar in the nave of Fleury Abbey, He's so new at his work that he doesn't even know how to look scary yet.

Remember You Must Die, But You Don't Have to be Consumed; Corbel, Cathedral of St. Pierre, Poitiers, 12th century

The corbels in St. Pierre are numerous and varied. Some are in such shadow that even in electric lighting for the cathedral they are nearly invisible. If you are lurking in those shadows, though, there is still a demon to remind you of the wages of sin. Here, between his tiny paws, a demon holds a sinner in his remarkable jaws. (There's a significant paper to be written about depictions of demons' dentition in Romanesque art, but I'll leave that to the next generation of scholars.)

Double Demons, St. Stephen Cathedral, Sens, France, 12th century

It helps to have supportive co-workers, and these peekaboo demons have made themselves a team. They offer a double-barreled warning of "memento mori," but they, too, seem to have yet to master looking scary. Nonetheless, they loom out of the shadows, and are certainly strange enough to be daunting. I can almost hear them singing.

Small Demon in 12th century Capital, Iglesia San Juan de Rabanera, Soria, Spain

This little demon sports a great armadillo armor, and is practicing a fearsome grimace, but he's still a back-bencher hiding in the foliage of this cloister capital.

Demon in the Shrubbery, facade of St. Martin, Bourges, 14th century

I am not sure of the narrative of this scene literally underfoot of a saint, but this demon seems to be quite thrilled to have even a bit part on the cathedral's facade.

Column Swallowers, Rose Window of St. Nicholas in Barfrestone, Kent, England, 12th century

Well, this seems like a dead-end job. How humiliating to stuff a support column into one's mouth for a rose window, while you're surrounded by a host of wee monsters who are having a gleeful time of it. Of all the jobs demons have, this must be the least-dignified.

Gargoyle, 15th century, Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption Cathedral, Clermont-Ferrand, France

Promotion from jump-scare demons in the church interiors might be to gargoyle. You get to be larger, and you get to show how good the church is at warding off evil from the parishioners within. It's a PR kind of job. This gargoyle is even more scary because he is made of volcanic rock (as is the whole church, which looms black in the heart of the city center). He certainly puts the "goth" in "Gothic."

Gargoyle, Cathedral of St. Pierre, Poitiers, France, 14th century

As a gargoyle, you may even get to have underlings to boss around. This gargoyle is delighted to be making life miserable for the atlas figure beneath him.

Demon claiming the souls of plague victims, fresco by Buonamico di Martino da Firenze, early 14th c., Campo Santo of Pisa Cathedral

I have saved for last the most baffling demon I've ever run across. He's part of a vast fresco about death and Last Judgment. He has the high-flying job of snatching souls out of the last breaths of the dead and dropping them off to Hell. But why, oh why, does he resemble Mickey Mouse? A demonic Mickey Mouse feels to me a violation of my childhood, where Mickey was one of the most benign and friendly characters one could see. An anachronism, I know, but I've seen literally thousands of medieval demons, and not one other resembles a demonic mouse-bat. Truly, the stuff of nightmares!

Thank you for reading the 50th post of my blog! It's been a joy to hear from some of you that you enjoy the topics and my images. Please drop a line below to say "Hi!" to celebrate with me!

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