Featured image: Franz Stuck, Lucifer, 1890. Oil on canvas, 60 in. x 63.3 in. (152.5 cm x 161 cm). National Gallery, Sofia.
The Devil has taken on many forms throughout the course of human history, and much of what we know of the Devil comes from our understanding of the role he occupies in a religious context.
In this post, I’d like to tackle various images of the Devil in the 17th-19th centuries as his depiction transforms over time from beast to angel in human form. During these centuries, his perception was heavily influenced by religious and literary sources such as the Bible, Dante and the legend of Dr. Johann Georg Faust.
A Mystery Unfolds Itself: Pieter van Laer’s Self-Portrait with Magic Scene
Pieter van Laer’s Self-Portrait with Magic Scene is a painting I first encountered at the Met in 2013, while searching for an object to write my undergraduate thesis at Fordham University and again at the Louvre as part of Masterpieces of The Leiden Collection: The Age of Rembrandt.
Hung against a backdrop of red satin-like wallpaper, Self-Portrait with Magic Scene came alive to me in a way I did not expect. Unlike its placement at the Met, forgotten among all the other Baroque paintings, its position at the Louvre gave it presence and allowed the mystery within the work to reveal itself.
In this painting, van Laer has cast himself in the role of the alchemist/magician who has stumbled upon the secret to summoning the Devil. The viewer arrives right at the moment when van Laer is startled by his unwelcomed visitor, claws at the ready. The scene, strewn with objects of nefarious origins, reveal a connection between Man and the Devil.
Van Laer’s inclusion of a self-portrait was not just to showcase his understanding of how to render faces accurately, as he had done before in a painting now at the Uffizi Gallery, but to illustrate the dexterity of the human face to convey emotion. This tradition of expressive faces was perfected in the early 1600s by Caravaggio (1) and Gian Lorenzo Bernini (2). Both of these artists delighted in depicting figures with mouths agape, eyebrows furrowed and noses wrinkled, adding an element of sound to their works: a yell, a scream, a gasp. Building on this tradition, the viewer can easily hear van Laer’s open-mouthed startled cry.*
The Devil, Alchemy, the Bible, and Faust
Alchemy, an early form of chemistry dealing with the transformation of one element into another has long been plagued with evil connotations. While it was a respected profession at the onset of the Renaissance, with some of the innovations in this field inspiring the work of scientists like Robert Boyle and Issac Newton, many of its processes concerning the transformation of the elements were shrouded in mystery.*
The various objects on the table and the overall darkness of the scene seen in Ryckaert’s Alchemist and repeated in van Laer’s Self-Portrait exposes the viewer to the world of the occult. The alchemist’s tools like the skull, here used as a cauldron, potions of indeterminate ingredients, insects and books convey the wielding of knowledge not meant to be used by man, and the consequences of such hubris are quickly beginning to manifest in the scene set before the viewer by van Laer.
The seeds spilling from a cone at the bottom right has allusions to the Devil, derived from the Parable of the Weeds from the Book of Matthew. This story tells of the separation of souls at Judgement Day by the angels. The good seeds refer to the followers of Christ, while the bad seeds are followers of Satan. The presence of these black seeds in this scene further illustrates that the alchemist’s pursuits will only lead to a path of damnation.**
The inclusion of the open book, at the bottom right, opened to a page containing a pentagram- a symbol synonymous with the Devil, and various markings of a vague language, bears similarity to a page from the Praxis Magia Faustiana (3), attributed to Johann Georg Faust. Faust was an alchemist and magician of the German Renaissance, whose life and work became the subject of a play by Christopher Marlowe around 1589 known as The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, and more famously Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, written in 1772. In both Marlowe and Goethe’s versions, Faust makes a deal with the Devil in exchange for infinite knowledge after failing to unlock the mysteries of science and learning on his own. After a period of twenty-four years, the Devil returns to collect Faust’s soul, which he is not ready to relinquish.
Van Laer’s Self-Portrait with Magic Scene can be seen as a vivid depiction of the last moments of Faust as the Devil returns at the stroke of midnight to collect his soul and deliver Faust’s grisly end.
The Geefs Brothers and the Le Génie du Mal
This tweet that made it around the internet and countless lists on Buzzfeed sparked my interest in the Geefs and their so-called hot sculptures of Lucifer. Upon further investigation, it turns out, the two versions of Lucifer made by these brothers were indeed too hot for church.
Joseph Geefs, the younger of the two brothers, was initially awarded the commission by St. Paul’s Cathedral in Liège, Belgium to design the pulpit, responding to the theme of the triumph of the Church over Evil. He completed the statue, known as L’ange du Mal in 1842 and was installed in the pulpit of St. Paul’s the following year.
The younger Geefs’ version presented Lucifer as a partially nude man, with smooth musculature ensconced in large, bat-like wings, and a snake coiled at his feet, a reminder of original sin. His face is serious, youthful and handsome. His downward glance leads the viewer to his slightly parted thighs and groin. Lucifer’s highly eroticized body and gaze proved problematic for a sculpture that was meant to evoke the sense that the Church had overcome the temptation of evil.
It even attracted the attention of the local press, who reported that the girls of the congregation became too “distracted” by the statue. It was promptly removed by Bishop van Bommel, and a commission for a new pulpit sculpture was initiated in 1837 and given to Joseph’s brother, Guillaume to complete.***
A New Commission: La Génie du Mal
Guillaume’s version of Lucifer is grounded in iconography related to his status as a fallen angel. This Lucifer was not as scantily clad; drapery was to cloak his mid-section and legs, revealing only his torso to the viewer. While he still presents a human form, there are more demonic elements present to remind any member of the congregation that this is not a human man, but instead, a demon– horns sprout from his head (3) and talons (4) replace toenails on his feet. Other details such as the apple at his feet and a scepter bearing a star at its point all allude to his role in the fall of Adam and Eve, as well as his fall from heaven and association with the morning star.****
The chains around Lucifer’s ankle and wrist make apparent the defeat of evil motif that Joseph’s earlier statue failed to achieve. It was also a new reinterpretation of Lucifer as a Prometheus-like figure; a fallen angel chained in Hell as punishment for disobeying God, just as Prometheus had been punished by the gods for sharing fire with mortals. The comparison and subsequent reconfiguring of Lucifer as Prometheus was a prominent literary theme in 19th-century variants of ancient Greek and Roman mythologies.*****
Guillaume’s sculpture can still be visited at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Liège. For now.
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Fabritius catalogue, from Francisca Vandepitte, Le Romantisme en Belgique. Entre réalités, rêves et souvenirs (exposition): Bruxelles, Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique; Espace Culturel ING; Musée Antoine Wiertz, 18.03–31.07.2005 (Brussels, 2005), p. 109.
**Matthew 13:24-30, Holy Bible: King James Version.
***Marchal, Edmond “Étude sur la vie et les œuvres de Joseph-Charles Geefs,” Annuaire de l’Académie Royale des sciences, des lettres et des beaux-arts de Belgique (Brussels, 1888), p. 316.
****Calvin, John. Commentary on Isaiah. I:404. Translated by John King. (Charleston, S.C.: Forgotten Books, 2007).
*****Wasserstrom, Steven M., Religion after Religion: Gershom Scholem, Mircea Eliade, and Henry Corbin at Eranos (Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 210ff.