Weird History The Visual Evolution Of Satan  

Genevieve Carlton
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Horns, a pointy mustache, and a spiked tail; why does Satan look the way he does today? The visuals of Satan have evolved over centuries to create the stereotypical Devil that has become familiar to modern viewers. Medieval artists borrowed from both the Greeks and Egyptians to depict Satan as a terrifying beast - he was often shown ruling over Hell, tormenting the souls of the damned. By the 16th century, artists began to depict Satan walking the Earth, harassing the living, and working with witches to wreak havoc on society. Satan has also appeared as a goat or a creature with enormous bat wings. This visual Satanic evolution continued in the 18th and 19th centuries, introducing the concept of Satan as a tragic figure or trickster.

Let's say you want to know how to sell your soul to the Devil or how to summon Satan. What will the Devil look like when he arrives? Is he a blue angel? A furry beast? A man dressed in black? The oldest pictures of Satan look nothing like modern imagery, and some pictures of the Devil are practically unrecognizable today. Here's how Satan has evolved over time.

The Satan Of The Byzantine Empire Was Blue, Not Red
The Satan Of The Byzantine Emp... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Visual Evolution Of Satan
Photo:  Sailko/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Modern depictions of Satan often show a red demon with hooves, but the oldest known image of Satan is actually blue. Dating back to the 6th century, this depiction is part of the intricate Byzantine mosaics in the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy.

In the mosaic, Jesus appears in royal purple robes to separate the saved from the damned in the Last Judgment. The saved, depicted as sheep, stand with a red angel. The damned, shown as goats, stand with a blue figure who likely represents Satan. 

Satan appears as a fallen angel rather than the recognizable demonic, hooved creature. The color red didn't become linked with Satan and other demons until centuries later.

Meister Von Torcello's Satan Draws On Egyptian Traditions
Meister Von Torcello's Satan D... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Visual Evolution Of Satan
Photo: The Yorck Project/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The earliest depictions of Satan drew on ancient themes. For example, a 12th-century depiction of Satan bears a surprising connection to Ancient Egypt. The mosaic, found on the island of Torcello near Venice, shows the Devil as an angry blue beast, his head and face wreathed by flowing white hair. His chair, which takes the form of a two-headed beast, devours sinners. Nearby, demons torment human heads engulfed in the surrounding flames.

Visually, this 12th-century Satan recalls the Egyptian god Bes, who was often given a blue hue by ancient artists. Ashmolean Museum curator Anja Ulbrich explains, “We know that little amulets of Bes were exported all over the eastern Mediterranean. So, people definitely knew the image of Bes, and it may have influenced depictions of Greek demons and satyrs.” That tradition, in turn, shaped Mediterranean depictions of Satan.

Coppo di Marcovaldo's Satan Is A Demonized Form Of The Greek God Pan
Coppo di Marcovaldo's Satan Is... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Visual Evolution Of Satan
Photo: Coppo di Marcovaldo/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Around 1280, Coppo di Marcovaldo created the largest image of Satan in Europe. On the wall of Florence's Baptistery, the Devil appears with serpents slithering out of his body to pounce on sinners. The iconography draws on the ancient Egyptian god Bes, who was also depicted as a serpent or as a creature with serpents crawling out of him.

The tradition of attaching animal parts to Satan's body would continue, but depictions of the blue, Bes-like Devil ended in the medieval period.

Medieval Artists Transformed Satan Into A Hybrid Beast
Medieval Artists Transformed S... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Visual Evolution Of Satan
Photo: Livre de la Vigne nostre Seigneur/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Medieval demons were often depicted as animal hybrids - or chimeras - and had hairy bodies, bird legs, wings, or hooves. Many images also showed demons with secondary faces in unusual locations, including the above 15th-century depiction of Lucifer awaiting the Last Judgment.

According to medieval Christians, Lucifer and his demonic followers were fallen angels. As such, their bodies were a perversion of angelic perfection. Instead of angel wings, they grew the leathery wings of bats. This blending of animal parts visually underscored the evil of Satan - even his body was an affront to nature.