Sunday, February 3, 2019

Unmasking the Enemy

What does Satan look like? If he were to appear tonight in your darkened room (perish the thought), and you were to roll over and click on the light, what would you see? These are probably not questions that you have asked yourself lately, and I am certainly not suggesting that you should have. 

The boogeyman phase of childhood is terror enough, let alone living in such fear as an adult. However, we know from Scripture that Satan is a real being, not some symbol of our evil side, or a mere personification of all that is bad in the world. He is our ancient enemy, a monstrous fallen angel, who hates God and us, and at this moment exists somewhere.

Christians, who spend their lives dealing with the issues that attend faith in a God who is an invisible spirit, are accustomed to accepting the reality of the unseen. We know we are surrounded daily by an invisible realm, evil forces beyond flesh and blood, a moment’s glimpse of which would no doubt fill our greatest heroes of the faith with terror unspeakable. Yet though I know this, I am still a child of my age, and I must struggle to maintain a proper recognition of the greater spiritual reality that envelopes my life in this world.

Judging from sacred art, there have been periods in the church’s history when the unseen world appeared in plain view to the faithful. In the Middle Ages, artists often even painted the Devil’s picture. It was in the medieval world that those pictures of Satan that we would most likely conjure up in our mind’s eye started to appear. Nowhere in the Bible is the Devil a red character with a pencil-thin mustache, horns, and hooves, who pokes his victims in the behind with a pitchfork. This, the most popular representation we know, has evolved and come to us from the medieval church.

A common form of entertainment in the Middle Ages was the Mystery or Miracle Play. In these plays, which were extremely popular in an age of widespread illiteracy, stories with strong moral messages were acted out in costume on makeshift stages in villages around Europe. The plot often involved a Christian under temptation, and the tempter, Satan, was a common character on the stage. Satan was usually depicted with the goat-like physical traits of the pagan god Bacchus, known for his debauchery and sexual immorality, or with the horns and tail of a bull, another idolatrous pagan image. One surviving account of a miracle play tells of the Devil’s costume as being covered with feathers—birds, because of their flight, were a common symbol of the angelic realm. These costumes became sources for artists when they chose to depict the Devil.

In many Medieval paintings and illuminations, Satan is a creature made up of chimera-like elements: bird, or lion-like claws, the face of a bull or goat, horns and hooves, the body of a human, though covered with scales, the legs of an insect. Often his stomach or chest has a frightening face on it with a gaping fanged mouth, even at times a mouth full of hissing snakes. This face on the torso derived from the medieval’s knowledge, through trade, of certain frightening gods depicted in Indian art. Satan in the art of the Middle Ages was, as one art historian put it, “an epitome of all hideous forms in zoological nature.” He was the worst thing the artist could strain to imagine and hope to convey—and often he did with revolting success.

These images stuck, and medieval artists strove to outdo themselves in their grotesque depiction of the Devil. In a world where most people couldn’t read, one hideous picture could be worth a thousand shudders. The common churchgoer was thus uncomfortably familiar with horrible pictures of a beastly Satan tempting the devout and driving the damned down into the gaping mouth of hell. The fear of damnation was a constant in the minds of medieval people, as unrelentingly emphasized as it is carefully soft-pedaled today. The Satan they imagined was enough to make a grown saint tremble each night when the candle was snuffed. To get an idea, look carefully at the paintings of Bosch and Bruegel, and at medieval images of the Temptation, and the Judgment. Walk slowly through the Medieval section of your nearest art museum.

Though the Renaissance saw the development of the painterly skills and the depiction of perspective and the human form, it did not improve upon visions of Satan. The serpent in the garden was a common Renaissance theme, the most effective representations being those that creatively combined human and sinister serpentine qualities. But these images could not rival the horror of the earlier ones. The medieval vision became embedded in the imagination of the church for all time.

Modern art, interestingly, has become saturated with the demonic, even though Satan rarely makes a cameo appearance. And in popular culture today, characters that once would have passed for mediocre versions of Satan are Saturday morning superheroes, designed for youthful admiration.

We can and should learn from our ancient ancestors of the faith, regardless of their tendency sometimes toward a “spooky” religion. We do live and breathe surrounded by the unseen world. Satan is no phantom, he is tragically real. What does he look like? I don’t know, but I can imagine the very worst. Thank God we are safe in Christ from our hideous enemy