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.   

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