Friday, September 28, 2012

The Florentine Devil

Last week I went to Italy and in Florence I saw the most awesome Devil. And after telling about the depiction to every one who would listen I thought its best to write about it here.
I knew that Florence has a lot of treasures to offer as almost any undergraduate art history course is based around the artworks and buildings found in that city. Thus in a really weird way walking around the city, its museums, and churches was like finally getting a chance to meet a long term pen pal: you know them, you know what they look like and meeting them is like meeting an old yet new friend. I think I even cried a little when I saw Massacio's Holy Trinity fresco in Santa Maria Novella. The work is not only a milestone of European and Western art being the first piece of art to consciously and correctly use perspective but also a subject of my first ever university essay.

I knew that I would find at least one impressive image of the devil, the famous mosaic in the Florence Baptistery, which allegedly was part of the inspiration for Dante's Inferno.

I was definitely not expecting to find the devil on the fresco of Florence Cathedral's dome. I saw the fresco of the dome many many times on photograps such as this:

or this:

In those photographs it is very easy to miss this guy because of his position.

Florence Cathedral dome, 1568-1579 Georgio Vasari & Federico Zuccari
 The Florence Cathedral Devil is special in so many ways that I am ready to make him the face of my MPhil research. He is special not only in the depiction but in his position with which I should probably start.
This massive winged demon escapes everyone's sight because he can be seen only from the altar. The alter part is out of bounds to tourists and the congregation thus only the clergy gets to see this guy. To tell the truth I found by being determined to find the devil in a 'last judgment fresco' (because almost every Last Judgment scene will have a devil or at least hell) and I had to run all over the chathedral to get a semi descent look at the monster.
What is even more interesting is that the congregation does get to see Hell and Tortures of Hell which are depicted below the image of Christ the Judge but the devil is off limits. The congregation sees the work of the devil, sees where following the devil will lead them, but they do not see the devil they can not know who/what the devil is. The only ones who are allowed this knowledge are the workers of the church.
I am really fascinated by this tension of knowing and not knowing, the idea of the clergy being allowed the full picture and the congregation just a part. In a very weird awkward way the same mechanics and logic seem to be at work in Matthew's gospel and its secrecy motif.
The Church is the only one who knows who the true devil is. This idea is even more interesting when the date of the image is considered - 16th century the reformation and beginning of counter-Reformation. Luther is calling Pope the Devil and Vatican is proclaiming Luther's followers to be Satan worshipers. It seem that the knowledge of the Devil and who possessed that knowledge was crucial at the time.
The depiction of this devil is also priceless. To me he looks like a huge greedy hamster, stuffing himself with humans with his little paws. (I don't think Ill use this description in my dissertation)

Probably the biggest difference between the two is that the devil is shown with three faces (or as my non art history friend pointed out 'Can there be a fourth one on the other side?'). Personally I seem to have a soft spot for everything three-faced and three-headed after writing an essay on a three headed Trinity last year. (the essay can be viewed here). The three faces of the devil is interesting because three heads/faces were usually used to depict anti-Christ or a connection with anti-Christ rather than the Devil (having said this some folk stories describe teh devil as three faced/headed. Here the three faces imply that the border between the anti-Christ and Devil is non existent at least in popular imagination.
Another thought that this image managed to spring on me, that others of a similar type did not, is the Devil's relationship to hell. Is he the ruler, is he the inmate or is he hell himself? Is he the one punishing, the one being punished, or the machine used for punishment? In art the devil is usually the torturer and the ruler, sometimes the devil is hell himself, like in representations of Hellmouth.

Hellmouth, Winchester Psalter, c 1150 Hell as the devil with smaller devils as torturers within it.

The Devil is never teh suffere in Art and yet looking at the Florence fresco I can not get rid of the idea that maybe the Devil is the one being punished. Look at him being stuffed with one body after another, its like a weird grotesque representation of gluttony and the tortures gluttony will bring in hell, you will have to spend the whole eternity eating and I doubt that fresh sinners are very tasty. I do realise that this reading was probably not implied by the original authors and viewers and probably comes from my experience of living in the 'over concerned Britain', and the uber-humanist view that I seem to have acquired here.
Yet imagine if this was the case then this image would be a depiction of all three aspects of the Devil's relationship with Hell! He would be the torturer - he devours the sinful. Hell himself - because as soon as eaten those bodies have to spend the whole eternity in Satan (unless he poops them out but Iam not sure I want to go there). and he is the one living out his punishment by having to eat without a stop.   

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The one that looks like Dobby with yellow eyes or Holbein's Allegory of the New and the Old Testaments

An Allegory of the Old and New Testaments, Hans Holbein the Younger
I came across this little beauty a couple of months ago in the National Gallery of Scotland. Unfortunately then I didn't have time to look at it or to even glance at the name of the author, and it was just recently that I managed to go back to explore it. it turned out to be a work by a very accomplished  16th century painter Hans Holbein the Younger (painter to Henry VIII).
I found myself captured by the painting not only because of this little guy with eyes like headlights lying underneath the skeleton but because it is the perfect illustration of theological believes of the 16th century. A perfect example of how art, theology and Biblical narrative can be rolled in to one and used for religious propaganda, in this case for protestant propaganda.

The image can be read clockwise from Adam and Eve to Jesus climbing out of the tomb, the narrative follows the biblical chronology. The Christian story here starts with the first couple at the tree of Knowledge (Genesis 3). The snake interpreted as a devil in Christian belief is shown here with a female face similar to Eve's, to make the connection between the two even stronger they are shown as friends exchanging secrets.  The first couple is in the postlapsarian state - having eaten the fruit and covering themselves up. Their action brought sin (PECCATVM) and introduced death (Mors) in to the world. Above them is Moses receiving the tablets with the 10 commandments or the law (LEX). Below him is the Brazen Serpent on a cross, a reference to which is found in Numbers 21:4-9  - an event when Moses gives the Israelites a bronze serpent that cures snake bites (this seems a bit reminiscent of the Rod of Asclepius). The serpent is also mentioned in 2 Kings 18:4 were King Hezekiah declares that the image of the serpent must be destroyed because it became an idol. The traditional Christian interpretation would be that the bronze serpent served as a symbol for each individual Israelite to take their confession of sin and the need for God’s deliverance to heart. This interpretation is reinforced here with the inscription MYSTERIVM IVSTIFICATIONIS - mystery justification.
The painting is also divided in to two vertical planes by the tree and the scenes on the right (New Testament) are coupled with the scenes on the left (Old Testament) (a note: here the OT scenes are not meant to be and are not shown as the prefiguration of NT events) . For example Moses receiving the law is juxtaposed with Mary and a flying baby with a cross - the image of divine Annunciation, the ultimate gift of God to humanity - his son and grace (GRATIA). Bellow the Annunciation/conception scene we find Jesus preaching to his disciples. This is presented as the antithesis to Adam and Eve. The knowledge given by the forbidden fruit led to the fall yet the teachings of the lamb of God (AGNVS DEI) lead to redemption. And the mysterious justification is juxtaposed with 'our justification' (IVSTIFICATIO NOSTRA) - Christ on the Cross. And all this finishes with the Resurrection of Christ an his victory over death (skeleton) and sin (the devil holding the globe) (VICTORIA NOSTRA). This last image is not so much a reference to the scripture as to the apocriphal believe of the harrowing of hell. Harrowing of hell is an epic story that explains what Jesus was doing the three days that he was dead, that is he was in hell batling with the devil over human souls (there are some awesome art works of this). Thus here Jesus is shown victorious over death. 
Caught between the two allegories, in front of what is plausibly the tree of life and death, we see a man (HOMO), on his right is prophet Isaiah (ESAYAS PROPHETAS) on whose 'prophesies' Christianity heavily relied, the most important of them is cited in the painting.
'Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.' (Isaiah 7:14)
On the other side of the man is the second important prophet of Christianity - John the Baptist with a quote from John 1:29
'The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!' 
The painting is the perfect illustration of theology of its day and religious politics. The left side with the barren tree, darker colors, and scenes of sin and death entering the world must be seen as Catholicism. This is reinforced by Moses and the law which is meant to be interpreted that all Catholicism ever cared about is dogma and rules. The right side where the tree is in bloom and the colour palette reminds of spring represents Protestantism a faith that shows itself as knowing what Christianity is really all about - Grace, salvation, and victory over sin.
It is interesting that Holbein uses a binary system similar to that Christians used against the Jews with similar accusations. For example in representations of Ecclesia and Synagoga (Church and Synagogue). Ecclesia is shown as majestic whereas Synagoga is shown blind to the new revelation and grasping/clinging on to her dated laws.

In a really strange way this binary system seems to also be applied now in the science vs religion debate, then again I just finished reading Karen Armstrong's 'Case for God' so I might be imagining things. And yet the accusations that the Catholics assigned to Jews are similar to those the Protestants gave to Catholics and are now similar to those the fundamental/Dawkin’s atheists are assigning to religion..

As for me I am captivated how different aspects of the devil are represented differently: Devil the tempter, seducing to sin has a female face. The defeated Devil is a hybrid of Harry Potter's Dobby and Dr Who's Homo Reptiles as awesome as these analogies sound to me the image would be a combination of everything repulsing for its original viewership. It is interesting that the seductive devil was made believable to be capable of seduction and yet gross enough for the viewer to know the dangers of being seduced and the defeated devil was so disgusting that the viewer would have no pity. In other words in art God seems to have only one face the devil – thousands and in some cases unless you know the story well enough to know it’s the devil you might not guess it is

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Devil, illuminati, antichrist and Rebecca Black or the crazies came out to play

I knew that writing about the Devil will be hard, not because its the devil but because I would have to sift through god knows how much poop to find proper literature and go on trips to the far and weird corners of YouTube. 
For me any academic research starts with google. After typing in Satan, Devil, Lucifer, Antichrist, the Devil a Biography I came across some things worth sharing. 
My personal favourite is Decoding the past - The Antichrist a 'documentary' from History Chanel which I watched back in school. A documentary that seeks to prove that Antichrists is an educated, handsome, tolerant, young man already alive in Europe.

Of course there is also the super famous pseudo documentary Zeitgeist, which is the favourite oracle of truth of every stoner I know. Interestingly Zeitgeist starts to seem sane compared to some things found in the shady parts of YouTube. My new favourites are the videos that try to prove that Rebecca Black and Willow Smith are evil devil worshipping Illuminati.
I do remember saying that Rebecca Black is evil and was born to mark the end of music, I also remember sniggering at Willow Smith's I Whip My Hair Back and Forth because it is the gayest thing I have ever seen. Yet I still think that turning this 

in to this added a whole new level of comedy.

It turns out Amazon has its dodgy corners as well. Even if the author is considered to be more or less sane it does not mean that his work will not be a trip into esoteric, new age crazyland, like my unlucky purchase which Iam pretty sure has instructions on conducting spirit summoning seances.

and as a bonus, this lovelly second hand musty smelling book had this envelope inside.

If this was a Hollywood movie probably Johny Depp or Tom Hanks would apear in my life with a crazy illuminati group or a self harming Opus Dei monk, but in real life I use the envelope as a mug coaster and the book is on one of the far shelves.