Five hundred years of Satanic art

Poor devil: He used to terrify people. Now he’s reduced to hawking razor blades and ham.

A new exhibition at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center, “Sympathy for the Devil: Satan, Sin, and the Underworld,” traces Lucifer’s visual history, from his emergence in the Middle Ages as a horned, cloven-hoofed, foul-smelling, diabolical creature of the night to his denuded and largely ironic image today.

“By around 1500, his visage and characteristics were pretty well set,” Bernard Barryte, Cantor’s curator of European art, tells Quartz. “He was initially a conflation of sundry things. Everything from Pan to Near Eastern gods got mushed together in the Middle Ages and became what we know of as the devil.”

In the 16th and 17th century, grisly paintings of the Evil One were intended literally, Barryte says.”They were meant to have a moral effect, which is why artists made him awful looking. Even if you were educated, you would wonder, ‘What if?’ No matter how skeptical one might be today, there was real faith underlying this imagery.”

The Enlightenment began to change that. As our conception of evil shifted, so did our personification of the devil. “He becomes more human, even romanticized, after the popular revolutions of the late 18th century, especially the French Revolution,” Barryte says. In the 19th century, the devil was often depicted as a “shrewd and wily dandy,” a Mephistophelean figure who would trick you out of your soul, not brutally tear it from you. “Fear is no longer his most effective tactic,” Barryte says. “And in the 20th century, he all but disappears except in advertisements.”

In his place—well, look in the mirror. “Hell is other people, is how Jean-Paul Sartre put it,” Barryte says. “All the sources of evil seemed to shift from some horrific other to mankind itself.”

For a nostalgic look at the devil’s many guises (along with depictions of his realm and minions), here’s a selection of works in the exhibition, which is on view through November 30:

Last Judgment, a painting attributed to the school of Hieronymous Bosch
School of Hieronymous Bosch, “Last Judgment” (late 15th century). (Courtesy Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University)
Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Albrecht Dürer
Albrecht Dürer, “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (1498) (Courtesy Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University)
The Carcass by Agostino Musi
Agostino Musi, “The Carcass (The Witches Procession)” (1520–1527). (Courtesy Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University)
The Descent to Hell of the Damned, by Goltzius
Hendrick Goltzius, “The Descent to Hell of the Damned” (1577). (Courtesy Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University)
Hell, by Johannes Sadeler
Johannes Sadeler, “Hell” (1590). (Courtesy Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University)
Lucifer, an engraving by Cornelis Galle I
Cornelis Galle I, “Lucifer” (c. 1595). (Courtesy Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University)
Satan Summoning His Legions by Stothard
Thomas Stothard, “Satan Summoning His Legions,” (c. 1790). (Courtesy Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University)
La Ronde du Sabbat, by Boulanger
Louis Boulanger, “The Round of the Sabbath” (1828). (Courtesy Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University)
Eugene Delacroix (France, 1798Ð1863), Mephistopheles Flying over the City, 1828. Lithograph. Mortimer C. Leventritt Fund, 1976.2.
Eugene Delacroix, “Mephistopheles Flying over the City” (1828). (Courtesy Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University)
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