In our past discussions we have talked about how sculpture is like a roommate who never moves, and paintings don’t have to match the drapes, but today our topic is how art doesn’t necessarily have to make you feel ‘good’. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder after all, and for some, the tingling, nervous apprehension of a horror movie or a roller coaster provides its own form of pleasant diversion. In fact, historically, for all of the great masters who have explored the major themes of love and beauty and the landscape and flowers and so forth, there are plenty from many eras who have looked into the more shadowy places for inspiration.
One of the first such themes to come to mind is the image of the Devil, the Horned One, Satan, the Morningstar himself, depicted by monks and artists of all sorts in order to help us avoid the temptations of sin. But when we look at some of these fantastic images, drawn with as much detail and interest as any still life or classical figure, one cannot help but wonder what the artist was thinking. Is it a lesson they want us to learn, or is it just the entertaining challenge of depicting the absolute of evil? Consider for example the ‘green devil’ painted in the Codex Gigas, a massive book allegedly written all in a single night by a Czech monk in the early medieval period. The legend says he was named Herman the Recluse, a Benedictine, who broke his monastic vows somehow and was to be walled up alive as punishment. He begged instead to be locked away and said he would write a great book that would contain ‘all human knowledge’ within it as penance instead. The book is about 3 feet long, leather bound, and holds some 320 pages, all fully inscribed and richly illuminated, holding the record as the largest medieval book ever (the pages consumed some 160 donkeys for the vellum). Apparently, he got halfway through and wasn’t finished, so he prayed to Lucifer to come and finish it for him, which the Little Horn supposedly did. Herman painted his portrait in the middle, like a big sinful centerfold. The book has been a source of fascination, veneration, suspicion and fear ever since.
Another notable image of Ole Scratch can be found from the woodblock engraving master Albrecht Durer. ‘Knight, Death and the Devil’, one of the Meisterstiche along with Melancolia and St. Jerome in His Study (1514, respectfully) is an entertaining little image completed in 1513 at a time that Durer considered abandoning all other media for engraving, at which he excelled. The symbolism behind it is debated but I think it is clearly the ‘valley of the shadow of death’, with the Devil leering from behind his horse as the evil he ‘feareth not’. Pig nosed, bug eyed and horry, it’s more comedic grotesquerie than threatening tempter.
Regardless, it’s not the only depiction of the Devil for Durer, as the era of his life was rife with such gory, religious images, reflecting the spiritual position that the Devil and demons were very much real, and very present in the world. The Malleus Maleficarum, ‘The Hammer of Witches’, was published in 1486/87 taking advantage of Gutenberg’s new printing press and getting wide distribution, as well as the Papal seal of approval. The Malleus describes the process by which one could identify, put on trial, and execute witches, and formally framed the idea of witches as a very real heresy and threat that involved collusion with the Devil, and not just a superstition. In these next two images, one Michael Defeats Satan and the other a Scene from the Apocalypse, our sinful little friend is rather small and nonthreatening, compared to the Angels who’ve trounced him. It’s a bit disappointing really, like seeing a fight between Mike Tyson and Erkel.
For some real muscle you need look no further than William Blake (1757-1827) the Romantic Age Brit, referred to as a madman, a revolutionary, or a visionary, depending on who you ask. Whatever your opinion, he produced an undeniably creative and vast collection of poetry and art expressing his views on spiritualism, faith and the supremacy of imagination. His images of the Great Fiend are simultaneously voluptuous and threatening, reflecting the idea of Lucifer as a beautiful and fallen angel. The Red Dragon is one of his most famous and appeared in the book and film of the same name by Thomas Harris, perhaps more memorable as having introduced us to the cannibalistic psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter.
In modern life however, many of us have moved past such imagery as our societies invent seemingly endless ways to create horror without the need to invoke the spirit realm. War, poverty, famine, ethnic cleansing and the like give us plenty of images of evil, fed through our media, nonstop, and while artists for the most part have left behind the quaint horned goat figure, many still feel a duty to depict the less pleasant sides of life. Goya (1746-1828) produced a series of etchings, The Disasters of War, depicting horrific acts of cruelty and depravity he observed in various conflicts of his day. More currently, the Chapman Brothers have created installation sculptures transforming Goya’s visions into horrifying, updated commentaries on our modern culture, with Nazi undead, KKK monstrosities and grotesque clowns. For some, the Chapman’s go too far, but perhaps that is one of the jobs of artists. Not only to look and reflect, but to make us look where we would rather not.