The Changing Face Of Satan, From 1500 To Today

Over the centuries, artists have come to portray Satan as less bestial demon, more human. How did the devil’s image evolve?

Whether you call him Satan, Lucifer, or Mephistopholes, he’s a beast with even more faces than he has names. Over the past five centuries, artists have variously depicted the devil as a fanged, horned demon; as an armored, Apollo-like army leader; and as a tailor of Nazi uniforms. A new exhibition at Stanford’s Cantor Art Center, Sympathy for the Devil: Satan, Sin and the Underworld, presents 40 works from 500 years of artistic portrayals of history’s most famous fallen angel, along with his minions and his evil realm.


“Obviously, people are more fascinated with evil than with good,” curator Bernard Barryte tells Co.Design. “Just look at the TV shows and movies from the last several seasons–there’s a natural human curiosity about horror.” In the earlier depictions of Satan, hailing from the 1500s and 1600s, this intrigue with horror is projected onto an image of a bestial, inhuman demon. But as the centuries go on, artists start rendering the personification of evil as, well, one of us. How did Satan’s image evolve from that of a goat-like demon to more like your next door neighbor? How do artists decide what the devil looks like?

In the Middle Ages, artists who wanted to depict Satan–among them, Hieronymus Bosch, Albrecht Dürer, and Hendrick Goltzius, all from Germany–were given surprisingly few details from the Bible about how he should appear. “The Bible is very vague,” Barryte says. To visualize this ruler of Hell, artists cobbled together imagery from older traditions that had already decided what demons looked like. “Bits and pieces from lots of now-defunct religions got synthesized: The cloven feet from Pan, the horns from the gods of various cults in the near east,” Barryte says. “In the 15th and 16th century, these solidified into this personification of evil, seen as the great enemy of Christ, the Church, and mankind: a horned, bestial, furry figure.”

Literature, too, has always had a major influence on how artists choose to represent Lucifer: in the Middle Ages, Dante’s Inferno, from the 14th century, provided the most graphic descriptions of the creature that lay in the innermost circle of Hell. In one image on view by Cornellus Gall, Satan appears exactly as Dante described him: standing upright, his lower half buried in a sea of ice, with three faces, munching on the three greatest traitors–Judas Iscariot, Brutus, and Cassius. “He stares straight out at you with his foremost face,” Barryte says. “Graphically, it’s a very powerful image.”

In later centuries, depictions of Satan in art evolved from a wretched beast to a more human figure. “By the 18th century, he’s ennobled, almost looking like an Apollo,” Barryte says–as seen in Thomas Stothard’s “Satan Summoning His Legions,” from 1790. That was due to the aftermath of the French and American revolutions, which tried to excise the more superstitious elements of religion. “People interpreted the figure less as demonic creature and more as heroic rebel against the oppression of the paternal god,” Barryte says. These renderings were also influenced by John Milton’s Paradise Lost, several editions of which are on view here, which drew Satan as an almost pitiable tragic hero.

In the 19th century, the publication of Goethe’s Mephistopholes in Faust and Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger influenced artists to portray Satan as much more of “a sly, cunning, dandyish type of figure,” as Barryte says. “Instead of scaring people into sin and intimidating them, he now uses persuasion.” And he has to look appropriate for the part: more weasely than bestial. In the exhibit, this trickster side of Satan is seen in a bronze statue depicting him as Mephistopholes, by the artist Ude.

While the image of Satan as a red, winged, horned figure persists in today’s popular imagination, contemporary artists have bestowed the devil with the most human likenesses to date. Barryte says the piece he finds most disturbing is Andres Serrano’s 1984 photograph, “Heaven and Hell” (NSFW). “It shows a nude women strung up and bloodied. With his back to her is this stern, stony faced cardinal, who has clearly tortured her in some way,” Barryte says. The image as far more ambiguous than earlier, more primitive depictions of an obviously evil beast. In the 20th century, as traditional religious structures broke down, artists started pointing out that evil might even lie within the church that so vehemently claims to oppose it. “The photograph asks so many questions about the church’s view of sexuality, and what is heaven, what is hell, where does evil really lie, why is it perpetrated?” Barryte says.


In Jerome Witkin’s 1978 painting “The Devil as Tailor,” Satan portrayed not as a standard devil at all, but as an ordinary-looking person sewing uniforms for the Nazis during World War II. “Hanging around him in lurid lighting are SS uniforms, prisoner uniforms,” Barryte says. It’s a comment on the “banality of evil,” as philosopher Hannah Arendt put it in her descriptions of Nazism. “The devil has become us, in a way,” Barryte says. “He’s less personified as some evil creature. It’s the human who creates hell on Earth.”

[h/t the Wall Street Journal]


About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.