Damned: An Illustrated History of the Devil

February 24, 2008

Damned: An Illustrated History of the Devil by Robert Muchembled
Translated from the French by Noël Schiller
Éditions du Seuil, 2004 (Chronicle Books)

“Hell is other people.”
— Sartre

 I’m happy that I bought a used copy of this book rather than shelling out about $90 for a new one. It’s not that I don’t like it, on the contrary, 200 glossy pages of devilish artwork is exactly what I want on my coffee table. I just was hoping for something a bit more in-depth for the history side of things. 

Each chapter in the book begins with a few double columned pages relating the main themes of the following pictures. It’s beautifully illustrated with everything from early woodcuts to luscious watercolours and oil paintings to modern comic book art. Beginning around the twelfth century, the author traces the “thread of evil” that has been “interwoven in the evolution of Western culture” (6) up until present times. Mirroring LaVey’s statement that Satan is the Church’s best friend, having kept them in business all these years, Muchembled shows the devil acting as a “catalyst for saints and evangelizers to develop” (6).  

Starting with the ‘invention’ of the devil and his development through to the fifteenth century, Muchembled touches on the various traditions that gave rise to so many images of the devil. He mentions Satan’s rather undefined identity as a bad angel in the realm of monastery-dwelling monks and theologians before being formally attached to surviving folkloric traditions of pagan spirits. (Again, the author doesn’t go into any sort of detail. The information given is an overview, nothing more).  

Chapter two deals with the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and contains a lot of nice pictures of the supposed Witches’ Sabbath. (Goya’s goat is sadly missing.) Each image has a couple paragraphs beside it that places it in context in view of its time period and place of origin. The pictures themselves do not follow the chronology of the chapters (the art is taken from a wide range of dates), though they relate to each chapter’s theme.    

Probably the most disturbing image is Félicien Rops’ Calvary, which depicts a nude Magdalene about to be strangled with her own hair. Dirck Bouts the Elder’s bat-like demons are a close second. Okay, and Max Ernst’s The Robing of the Bride. This book isn’t bedtime reading material (unless, of course, you enjoy Bosch-esque nightmares).  

After a brief interlude of Devilish Women, the author returns to his timeline with the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. Although one would expect that after the Enlightenment Satan would fade along with the religious institution to which he belonged, the devil was rescued by both literature and art as the ultimate rebel. Finally, the author ends with a chapter devoted to images of Satan in film, modern art, and comic books. 

As far as art books go, I’ve never seen anything like this one. The Satanic imagery is great, but what this book really shows us is our fear (or, in some cases, the historical Church’s fear): Fear of our supposedly ‘base’ instincts, fear of women, fear of homosexuality, fear of heresy and freedom of thought, fear of nature, fear of each other, and fear (however laughable) of an oppressive, unjust, omnipotent god. It shows us ourselves as we do not like to be seen, bringing a bit of edge to what is, at first glance, just a collection of macabre art.

One Response to “Damned: An Illustrated History of the Devil”

  1. Nico Says:

    Finding other critical reviewers of occult texts are rare – good stuff.

    I’ve added you to my blogroll on Plutonica.net – hope you don’t mind 🙂

    PS: I found you via Papers Falling from an Attic Window – thanks to them!

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