“The Devil’s out of fashion,” quips Cassandra Mortmain, the narrator of Dodie Smith’s 1948 novel I Capture the Castle. Over 70 years later, art critic and essayist Demetrio Paparoni seems to agree that we’re a little less obsessed with the devil than we once were. However, the Prince of Darkness still has a hold on the collective imagination and in The Art of the Devil: An Illustrated History, Paparoni charts the dramatic evolution of the figure’s image.
The book’s thematic but chronologically broad chapters allow readers to trace which elements of the devil’s visual iconography have persisted since the Middle Ages and which have changed. Animalistic renderings, for example, have been a go-to for artists attempting to represent evil. The snake, reminiscent of the serpent in the Garden of Eden (never actually said in Genesis to be the devil but forever associated with him), appears in Andre Serrano’s 2011 work of the same name, curled around a crucifix, while Francisco Goya’s “Witches’ Sabbath” (1798) depicts the devil as a horned goat receiving child sacrifices.
However, it is the portrayal of the devil as man-like that reveals some of the most intriguing ideas about what the devil has historically represented. Paparoni suggests more humanistic portrayals hint at the biblical“shared destiny” of Lucifer and mankind. He alludes to the influence of Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost when writing of Franz von Stuck’s 1891 painting “Lucifer,” whose pensive, muscular titular figure is differentiated only by his unearthly bright eyes and shadowy wings.
With the western secularization that began with the Enlightenment, the meanings and representations of the devil shift again. He becomes a metaphor for human evil, with fewer religious connotations, the “diabolical more than the demonic.” The story of the temptation of St Anthony continued to serve as inspiration into the 20th century, after the devastation of nuclear warfare in Japan. Salvador Dali’s 1946 interpretation, “The Temptation of St. Anthony” (1946) conveys a wasteland on which black clouds encroach and grotesque horses and elephants loom over a frail, naked kneeling Anthony. In Max Ernst’s 1945 painting of the same title, demons overrun the canvas terrorizing the saint. Their deformation suggests the effects of radiation as Ernst “shows us a form of evil capable of… turning nature into a hostile all-devouring monster.” In both Dali and Ernst’s interpretations hell is here on earth created by our own hands.
Elsewhere, Paparoni illustrates how the devil’s association with sex, deceit, charm, and hedonism has also made him a perfect reference for Hollywood’s glamour and artificiality. Pierre et Gilles’s painted photographs of subjects like Jeff Stryker and Marie France in glittery horns emphasizes how the images of the devil in the collective imagination have morphed from being informed by an earnest belief in his existence to reflecting a hyper-awareness of his symbolic meanings and a desire to satirize clichés. Works like Gary Baseman’s Garden of Earthly Pleasures series depict the devil with all his sexual and anthropophagous impulses, except he is a chubby three-legged, arrow-tailed, horned thing cute enough to be a collectible figure.
What these images also speak to is the distilling of the devil’s visual iconography into one specific and very persistent image: horns. Originally inspired by mythical creatures like Pan and Cernunnos, and used to symbolize “one part of himself that the devil fails to hide,” the horns so effectively carry the essence of the devil that their presence immediately transforms the mundane into the malevolent as they do in Paul Solberg’s haunting photograph “What I’ve Become” (2016).
With The Art of the Devil, Paparoni reveals how the figure became increasingly less terrifying. Yet he ultimately hints at a latent fear of the devil and what he represents that has continued to fuel the image of the devil in our imaginations, no matter how much we try to laugh him off.