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.
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)
28 And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. 29And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” 30Now a herd of many swine was feeding at some distance from them. 31And the demons begged him, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of swine.” 32And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the swine; and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and perished in the waters. 33The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, and what had happened to the demoniacs. 34And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood.
5 They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerʹasenes. 2And when he had come out of the boat, there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, 3who lived among the tombs; and no one could bind him any more, even with a chain; 4for he had often been bound with fetters and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the fetters he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. 5Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out, and bruising himself with stones. 6And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and worshiped him; 7and crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” 8For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” 9And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” 10And he begged him eagerly not to send them out of the country. 11Now a great herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside; 12and they begged him, “Send us to the swine, let us enter them.” 13So he gave them leave. And the unclean spirits came out, and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.
14 The herdsmen fled, and told it in the city and in the country. And people came to see what it was that had happened. 15And they came to Jesus, and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. 16And those who had seen it told what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine. 17And they began to beg Jesus to depart from their neighborhood. 18And as he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. 19But he refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” 20And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapʹolis how much Jesus had done for him; and all men marveled.
26 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerʹasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27And as he stepped out on land, there met him a man from the city who had demons; for a long time he had worn no clothes, and he lived not in a house but among the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him, and said with a loud voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beseech you, do not torment me.” 29For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many a time it had seized him; he was kept under guard, and bound with chains and fetters, but he broke the bonds and was driven by the demon into the desert.) 30Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss. 32Now a large herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside; and they begged him to let them enter these. So he gave them leave. 33Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.
34 When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled, and told it in the city and in the country. 35Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 36And those who had seen it told them how he who had been possessed with demons was healed. 37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerʹasenes asked him to depart from them; for they were seized with great fear; so he got into the boat and returned. 38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but he sent him away, saying, 39“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him.