Saint Michael and the Devil by Unknown Spanish Artist

Unknown Spanish artist

Saint Michael and the Devil, c.1475–1500, Poplar, formerly polychromed and gilded, 52.4 x 22.9 x 21.3 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago; Chester D. Tripp Endowment, 2004.721, The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY

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The Plasticity of Evil

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Michelle Fletcher

This paradigmatic encounter between Michael and Satan is often referred to as ‘The Vanquishing of Satan’. It appears in a myriad of forms in the history of art, with Michael’s enemy being represented as a dragon, demon, and man, as the theology surrounding Satan morphs.

In this late fifteenth-century poplar carving, Satan is portrayed as the dragon/demon and the artist has rendered him as a slippery character. He has many heads and various faces, so as the viewer moves around this plastic object, the figure alters with each new angle. From one angle, Satan appears to claw at Michael in what could be one final subversive attempt, or maybe he paws at him, as an animal pleading to be caressed, or even saved. From another angle, the demon’s face appears defeated, with a leg raised in an almost surrendering stance. Yet, move a little more and an impish grin meets you from the top of the scull. Indeed, there are faces spread across this shape-shifting figure. 

Such a multifaceted rendering reflects the text of Revelation that inspired this carving. In Revelation 12:9, Michael’s opponent is ascribed many names. First, he is ‘the great dragon’, then also ‘the ancient serpent’, then ‘the one called the devil’, then ‘the one called Satan’, and finally, ‘the deceiver of the whole world’. Therefore, as the viewer moves around and sees the changes each new perspective brings, they can palpably perceive the slippery nature of Michael’s multiplicitous foe. By rendering Satan as no one creature, but instead as many morphing creatures, this carving facilitates an encounter with Revelation 12 which visualises something hard to pin down: the plasticity of the face of evil.