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Healing of the Possessed Man of Gerasa, from Magdeburg Ivory panels by Unknown artist [Milanese?]
Healing of the Possessed Man of Gerasa by Paul Bril
The Exorcist by Luc Tuymans

Unknown artist [Milanese?]

Healing of the Possessed Man of Gerasa, from Magdeburg Ivory panels, c.962–68, Ivory, 13 x 11 x 0.8 cm, Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt, Zip Lexing / Alamy Stock Photo

Paul Bril

Healing of the Possessed Man of Gerasa, 1601, Oil on copper, 27 x 36 cm, Alte Pinakothek, Munich, inv.no. 876, bpk Bildagentur / Alte Pinakothek, Munich / Art Resource, NY

Luc Tuymans

The Exorcist, 2007, Oil on canvas, 84.8 x 118.4 cm, Private collection, © Luc Tuymans, Courtesy Studio Luc Tuymans; Photo: Peter Cox, Courtesy Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp

The Power of Christ

Comparative Commentary by

Of the many references to exorcisms in the New Testament, the healing of the Gerasene demon (Mark 5:1; Luke 8:26), or two Gadarene demoniacs (in Matthew 8:28), is one of the most compelling. Mark develops it at greatest length and with greatest relish, but in all three versions the performance between Jesus and the demon in the presence of the disciples and the herdsmen, has a public and theatrical dimension. Following on directly from Jesus’s calming of the storm, this miracle seems to build towards even more spectacular heights: Jesus is shown to control not only the wild elements of nature, but has mastery over a demon that appears at times to assume the power of a whole army. His victory over it is given a visible demonstration unlike any of the other Gospel exorcisms.

Both the tenth-century ivory carving and the painting by Paul Bril in this exhibition recount the miracle as described in Luke and Mark. When the demon speaks, he immediately shows a certain respect towards Jesus. We understand he feels threatened since he has recognised him as the Son of God (Mark 5:7; Luke 8:28). He starts begging not to be expelled to a different land or into the abyss (Luke 8:31), knowing that he is less powerful than the person in front of him. When Jesus drives the demon out, he tells the healed man to ‘Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you’ (Mark 5:19). The performance therefore also becomes an instrument for converting gentiles to belief in Christ; through the exorcism the word of Christ’s miraculous power is spread.

The ivory relief represents the exact moment when the devil is leaving the body of the possessed man. The composition is simple but effective, and the artist managed to capture many aspects of the story. Jesus is represented as larger than the other figures, underlining his authority and command of the situation.

What happens just moments afterwards is represented by Paul Bril more than six centuries later. In his rendition, the struggle of the man being healed is still palpable as the herd of swine, now possessed by the demon, runs off a cliff leaving behind a large cloud of dust. The demon’s choice to be cast into pigs can be explained by their classification in Jewish Law as ‘unclean’ (Leviticus 11:7–8). Bril’s detailed telling of the Gospels is dominated by the magnificent scenery that takes up most of the space in this composition. Whereas the ivory relief was meant clearly, and only, to narrate the story of the exorcism and Christ’s power, Bril seems to be concerned with expressing something more: devotion, the overwhelming beauty of the land, and—perhaps above all—Christ’s control over it.

The ritual of exorcism, or the act of driving out and warding off demons or evil spirits from people who are believed to be possessed, was a defining feature of early Christianity. One of the earliest petitions for an exorcism can be found in the Apostolic Constitutions, a fourth-century collection of treatises intended as a manual for the clergy, where it was considered a gift of healing: ‘May he that rebuked the legion of demons, and the devil, the prince of wickedness, even now rebuke these demons which have turned away from piety’. It was believed that God could give human’s the charism of casting out these demons, and in the following centuries the act of exorcism transformed into a liturgical performance drawing upon priestly authority (Young 2016: 28).

By telling the story of the demonic possession of a 12-year old girl—and her mother’s attempt to rescue her through an exorcism by priests—William Friedkin’s 1973 movie The Exorcist harnessed modern people’s continued fear of demons, and enabled him to create one of the most successful horror movies of the twentieth century. Belgian artist Luc Tuymans (1958) adopted a specific still from the movie for his 2007 series of paintings on the power of the Jesuits. The famous scene in which the two Jesuit priests keep chanting ‘The power of Christ compels you’ is still recognisable, but stripped of its dark colours, movement, and sound, becomes ghostly and distant in Tuymans’ painted interpretation. This makes the beholder reflect in yet another way on the Gospels’ message of the power of Christ. Here invoked by priests, this power seems something ethereal—transcending our world (as befits divine power), but by the same token elusive, detached, and out of reach.

 

References

Barton, John, and John Muddiman (eds). 2007. The Oxford Bible Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Boring, M. Eugene. 2006. Mark: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press)

Levack, Brian. 2013. The Devil Within (New Haven: Yale University Press)

Oden, Thomas C., and Christopher A. Hall (eds.). 1998. Mark, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament, 2 (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press)

Young, Francis. 2016. A History of Exorcism in Catholic Christianity (London: Palgrave Macmillan)