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The Hidden Symbolic Meaning of the Devil in Western Painting

Satan Symbolism in Art History

Byzantine, Gothic and Northern Renaissance artists represented Christian culture and values. Depictions of hell, Satan and rampaging demons reached a fever pitch after the great plague of the mid 14th century. Satan and his evil minions were often included as a sort of cautionary tale for illiterate church goers. Hildegard of Bingens, a medieval mystic and writer stated "The devil keeps man from good with a thousand machinations spewed from his belly, so that when a person sighs to do good, he pierces him with his shafts; and when he desires to embrace God with his whole heart in love, he subjects him to poisonous tribulations, seeking to pervert good work before God. And when a person seeks the viridity of virtue, the devil tells him that he does not know what he is doing, and he teaches him that he can set his own law for himself." Spiritually significant paintings created during the Gothic and Renaissance eras are complex, fraught with religious fervor and symbolism.   William H. Hunt stated "When language was not transcendental enough to complete the meaning of a revelation, symbols were relied upon for heavenly teaching, and familiar images, chosen from the known, were made to mirror the unknown spiritual truth."

In a culture of limited literacy symbolic imagery was vital in enlightening the masses.  Byzantine, Gothic and Early Renaissance paintings are rich in philosophical and Christian symbolism regarding serpents.

The Dragon - the emblem of heathen evil and Satan, the spiritual enemy of mankind. Saint Michael and Saint George are often depicted battling and slaying the dragon symbolizing their triumph over evil.

Snake - symbolizes Satan; the presence of evil, fall of man

The pitchfork and trident  are both symbols of the devil

Snake in a fruit tree - signifies the mans fall from grace as well as  Satan's meddling in the affairs of men.

A snake brazenly slithering across the middle of a thoroughfare or road - symbolizing the False Prophet leading the way to hell.

A devious serpent peeking out of a basket, urn or pot - a spiritual reminder of Satan's presence in unusual places.

The Color Red - a symbol of greediness and lust. Denotes sin; sins of mankind, Satan, original sin; temptation, Judas, Harrowing of Hell, The Fiery Furnace, Slaughter of the Innocents, the Apocalypse .

Goat - symbol of the Devil.  Satan is often depicted as a horned and hoofed goat-like creature.

Wasp - symbol of the Devil or his henchmen.  Satan is often depicted as a devilish winged creature. The wasp or yellow jacket is symbolic of Satan's relentless hunt for easily corrupted souls and backsliders.

A fluttering blue of white curtain- symbolizes a heavenly world in which the splendor of the holy and divine is only beginning to be shown.

An unsheathed knife near a money purse or pile of coins- denotes a rebellious and materialistic viewpoint.

A burned out candle - symbolizes a lack of devoutness and piety.

A white or blue pitcher and basin -  is a symbol of Purity, signifying clean thoughts and an uncorrupted essence.  The pitcher and basin are also symbolic of forgiveness of sins, cleansing, sanctification, unity with God, eternal life, glory, theosis.

A dirty window- suggests physical malady (usually a venereal disease or leprosy); a polluted body.

A spilled or overturned inkwell- symbolizes broken  promises, broken political treatise, missed chances If the spilled inkwell is on the desk of a Saint then this symbolizes martyrdom;  divine sufferers who spilled their blood in Gods name. 

Lute - a musical instrument symbolic of romantic love.

 
 
 
 

 

References

A list of painters who often depicted the devil and the tortures of hell.

William Blake British, 1757-1827 Romantic Painter

Eugène Delacroix French, 1798 - 1863 Romantic  Painter

Lucas Cranach German, 1472-1553 Northern Renaissance

Hieronymus Bosch Dutch, 1450-1516 Late Gothic,  Surrealism

Pieter Brueghel the Elder Dutch, 1525-1569 Northern Renaissance

Albrecht Dure German,  1471 - 1528 Northern Renaissance

Historical Names of Satan

The Meaning of Sacred Symbols in  Paintings. Most prominently featured  symbols and their meaning:

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