“The world is all the richer for having the devil in it, just as long as we keep our foot on his neck” – William James
How much would you sacrifice for your art, that thing which impassions you? Perhaps you write, or paint, or arrange Hummel figurines. Regardless, it’s the one thing that is a shining light in what would otherwise be just another link in the chain that binds us to this waking nightmare we call life. Would you give up your friends? Your family? Your ear? Your sanity? How about your soul? Don’t worry, although I have some devilish qualities, I’m not making an offer or anything. Renowned painter David Hockney once said, “The moment you cheat for the sake of beauty, you know you’re an artist”, and what cheat could be greater than trading your eternal soul for a shot at artistic immortality in your chosen medium? This is quite literally the devil’s bargain reputedly entered into by minor Austrian painter Johann Christoph Haizmann (1652-1700 A.D.).
Haizmann was born in Traunstein, Bavaria, and until 1677, we know very little about him except his dream was to be a famous painter. Unfortunately, it seems he lacked the requisite talent. When he relocated to Austria and emerged on the burgeoning art scene, trying his hand as a professional artist, it seems he was roundly regarded as a bit of a hack, and consequently was destitute. I feel your pain, brother. I come from a family of painters and sculptors and would like nothing more than to ply brush on canvas to the accolades of my peers, but unfortunately being relatively color-blind and suffering traumatic pre-pubescent failures at finger painting, determined that I would need to find an alternate mode of expression. Haizmann was undeterred by a complete lack of success, and kept his nose to the artistic grindstone, so at least he got the “starving” part of the starving artist oeuvre right. In 1668, “while despondent over the death of his father, and troubled about his career as an artist” (Peterson, 1982, p20), Haizmann, by his own account, took drastic action, and elected to sell his soul to the Devil for nine years of artistic inspiration. Haizmann detailed his pact in his own diary, freely admitting that he met the Devil, disguised as an old aristocrat, in a nearby forest, and was promised worldly success for signing his soul over to the devil after nine years. Haizmann says that he refused nine times, but gosh darn it, Satan is after all a silver-tongued devil, and Haizmann was finally persuaded to put ink (or blood) to paper and seal the deal. Well, nine years passed. It seems that Haizmann’s primary error was a failure to specify the form which his artistic immortality would take. You really should have an attorney on retainer if you intend to sign a demonic pact. It seems that for nine years, Haizmann was not only plagued by horrific visions of demons, but also failed to find the fame as a painter he had been seeking, and as the September 1677 contractual deadline approached, he started to worry that he might have been the victim of an infernal con job. It’s what those pesky evil spirits are known for, after all. Contrary to popular opinion, the Bar Association does not actually have official diplomatic relations with Hell, so rather than seek out a attorney to see if he could find a loophole, Haizmann did the next best thing when it comes to diabolical tort law. He went to a priest.
On August 29, 1677 in a church in Pottenbrunn, he was seized with convulsions and later admitted these were due to a previous pact with the Devil in which he agreed in writing to belong to him in body and soul after 9 years. This period would expire September 29, 1677. After the painter had undergone a prolonged period of penance and prayer at Mariazell, the Devil appeared to him in the sacred Chapel at midnight September 8, the Nativity of the Virgin, in the form of a winged dragon, and gave him back the pact, which was written in blood. After a short time the painter left Mariazell in the best of health and went to Vienna, where he lived with a married sister. On October 11, fresh attacks began, some of them very severe. They consisted in visions and absences, in which he saw and experienced every kind of thing, in convulsive seizures accompanied by the most painful sensations. This time, however, it was not the Devil who tormented him; it was by sacred figures that he was vexed. In May, 1678, he returned to Mariazell and told the reverent Fathers that his reason for returning was that he had to require the Devil to give him back another earlier bond, which had been written in ink. This time once more the Blessed Virgin and the pious Fathers helped him to obtain the fulfillment of his request. He entered the Order of the Brothers Hospitallers and was again repeatedly tempted by the Evil Spirit, who tried to make a fresh pact. These attempts were repelled and Brother Chrysostomus died of a hectic fever peacefully and of good comfort in 1700 (Rothgeb, 1971, p128).
Now, cynical folks will point out that this is why you can’t trust Satan, but let me play devil’s advocate, and suggest that technically, the Prince of Darkness did adhere to the specifications of the original contract. A manuscript of Haizmann’s autobiography, as well as archival transcripts of his exorcism entitled Trophæum Mariano-Cellense were rediscovered in the 1920’s and analyzed by none other than psychiatrist Sigmund Freud in his article “A Seventeenth-Century Demonological Neurosis” (1923), and which to this day is still studied as a textbook case of schizophrenia. In the end, Haizmann did achieve the immortality he craved, and arguably, even did so as an artist, just not as a particularly good one. Perhaps you can convince yourself that beauty is divine, and thus the day the devil comes to get you, he is driving a fools bargain, since through your art you have your magnificent works to fall back on to support your case for an exception, but remember the words of theologian Aiden Wilson Tozer who wisely warned, “The devil is a better theologian than any of us and is a devil still”.
Peterson, Dale. A Mad People’s History of Madness. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982.
Rothgeb, Carrie Lee, 1925-, and Sigmund Freud. Abstracts of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Rockville, Md.: National Institute of Mental Health; Supt. of Docs., U.S. Govt. Print. Off., Washington, 1971.