Page 6, 16th June 1995

16th June 1995
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Page 6, 16th June 1995 — Sympathy for a devil

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Locations: Venice


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Sympathy for a devil

The Devil: A Mask Without Face tly Luther Link, Reaktion Books, £17.95 TALK OF THI ; DIWIL IS

distinctly unfashionable today. Our sceptical and scientific age has pensioned off Satan, for centuries the face and the name that religion put to the otherwise abstract reality of evil. Even Popes, archbishops and priests are loath to mention a name that was once on every preacher's lips. Having issued dire warnings of hellfire and damnation from the pulpit for centuries, the leaders of the main Christian Churches clearly feel that a period of silence is called for about Lucifer.

However, Satan will not so easily accept his fate. In the ever-growing evangelical Churches, for instance, the Devil is alive and kicking, still blamed for every misfortune that befalls the righteous.

And in society as a whole, Satan continues to serve as a metaphor for evil, while allegations of satanic ritual abuse show that many who would profess themselves atheists are not prepared to disown the Prince of Darkness.

Luther Link's beautifullyillustrated book probes the character of the Devil down the ages. Its approach is neither theological nor psychological. The broader questions of what is evil and how to deal with it are not directly addressed, nor is the Church's attempt to carve out a place for the Devil in every psyche explored.

The author, a Professor in the department of literature at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, approaches his subject from a strictly arthistorical point of view. But other aspects are touched on, in this readable overview.

One of the many paintings, frescoes, carvings and sculptures featured gloriously in the book kept coming back to me after I had put it down. The Last judgement mosaic at Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello, a tiny island in the lagoon of Venice, is a 12th century creation of quite astonishing colour and detail. Rich in golds and reds, it offers a strict two-dimensional view of life and death, with God at the top in His heaven and the Devil at the bottom in hell. Unusually, however, it depicts Satan in blue, half the wise old man and half the malevolent monster, the trickster ready to lure us with his benign countenance before showing his real nature once we are entrapped. Of course Link would baulk at the suggestion that there is a traditional or standard depiction of Satan. His thesis is that behind the mask of evil, the Devil has taken every form and none, that our preconceptions as to his appearance depend largely on the view of one period, the medieval age.

Then the Church was at the height of its political powers and the Devil was a useful tool in keeping the faithful obedient and free from heresy. It was also an era of widespread illiteracy when religious art and, to a lesser extent, drama had a distinct teaching role in putting over basic doctrine. Satan was central to that and his face, contorted and threatening though occasionally also strangely alluring, peers out of a whole host of illustrations from the time.

From the 15th century onwards, however, as Link shows, artists took a freer line: on Satan, some of them, like! Michelangelo in his 16th century Last judgement in the. Sistine Chapel, leaving the Devil out altogether. Link's book is part of Rcak-tion's "Picturing History" series. Though its main audience will be a specialist one., the author's ability to skip lightly through different periods and artistic movements„ plus his insights into the development of the Church, should guarantee an appeal to a wider readership anxious to consider the fate of one of Christianity's most enduring characters.



Peter Stanford's biography of the Devil will be published early next year by Heinemann.

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