“A great portrait is always more a portrait of the painter than of the painted” – Samuel Butler

Etching of Spinello’s Fallen Angels (original fresco was destroyed)

One of the great conundrums of man is whether others see us as we see ourselves.  For example, I like to think of myself as “ruggedly handsome”, but much to my dismay I’ve been told this is not entirely accurate and a more appropriate descriptor would be “nerdishly unkempt”.  We live and learn.  This is of course, why there is such a strained relationship between celebrities and the paparazzi.  Folks who make a living off their image, tend to want to control that image, whereas nothing warms the heart of a professional celebrity stalker more than the schadenfreude of catching the glitterati in unflattering poses, sans make-up, eating a messy chili dog, usually captioned with staggeringly obvious statements like “Stars need napkins, too!”  Now, catching the likeness of the latest teen idol’s dubious antics may sell tabloids, but usually there is no mortal threat involved.  When you decide to paint a portrait of Lucifer, particularly an unflattering one, you may just be playing with fire, as 14th Century Italian painter Spinello Aretino (1350-1410) discovered.

Spinello Aretino was an influential painter from Arezzo, Italy, considered to be a stylistic link between the school Of Giotto and that of Siena, who got his start assisting Tuscan painter Jacopo del Casentino with church frescoes.  Sadly, although Spinello painted a lot of frescoes throughout Arezzo and Florence, much of his work has been lost, destroyed, or badly restored.  After a long life of toddling around Italy slapping together masterpieces on church altars, he finally headed home to Arezzo.  “Having returned there, then, at the age of seventy-seven or more, he was received lovingly by his relatives and friends, and was ever afterward cherished and honoured up to the end of his life, which was at the age of ninety-two. And although he was very old when he returned to Arezzo, and, having ample means, could have done without working, yet, as one who was ever used to working, he knew not how to take repose, and undertook to make for the Company of San Agnolo in that city certain stories of St. Michael, which he sketched in red on the intonaco of the wall, in that rough fashion wherein the old craftsmen used generally to do it; and in one corner, for a pattern, he wrought and coloured completely a single story, which gave satisfaction enough. Then, having agreed on the price with those who had charge thereof, he finished the whole wall of the high-altar, wherein he represented Lucifer fixing his seat in the North; and he made there the Fall of the Angels, who are being transformed into devils and raining down to earth; while in the air is seen a St. Michael, who is doing combat with the ancient serpent of seven heads and ten horns; and below, in the centre, there is a Lucifer, already transformed into a most hideous beast” (Vasari, 1912, p38-39).

To be fair, the Bible is incredibly vague on what Lucifer actually looks like.  We have to assume at some point pre-Rebellion he was a dapper young angel, in fact before he got all uppity, Ezekiel 28:12-13 mentions how beautiful Satan was.  Presumably, divine smiting is bad for the complexion.  Our traditional depictions of Lucifer tend to be drawn from the pagan gods that preceeded him – the cloven hooves of Pan, the horns of various Near Eastern deities, the goatee of urban hipsters and neighborhood gentrifiers.  For at least a thousand years, poets and artists have taken that whole “root of all evil” thing and run wild in their depictions of the utter monstrosity of Lucifer, particularly when juxtaposed with those be-haloed golden-boy angels with their nice white feathers, shiny armor, and celestial glory.  This has been going on for a good long time, and had to rub Lucifer the wrong way.  I mean, maybe he did get ugly on his way down to the Pit, but obviously he was a looker in his prime.

So, Spinello was not unique in painting a monstrous version of Lucifer, but some say that he enjoyed transfiguring the Prince of Darkness into a loathsome beast so intensely, that it caught the attention of Lucifer himself.  “Spinello took so much pleasure in making him horrible and deformed, that it is said (so great, sometimes, is the power of imagination) that the said figure painted by him appeared to him in a dream, asking Spinello where he had seen him so hideous, and why he had offered him such an affront with his brushes; and that he, awaking from his sleep, being unable to cry out by reason of his fear, shook with a mighty trembling, insomuch that his wife, awaking, came to his rescue. But he was none the less thereby in peril—his heart being much strained—of dying on the spot by reason of such an accident; and although he lived a little afterwards, he was half mad, with staring eyes, and he slipped into the grave, leaving great sorrow to his friends” (Vasari, 1912, p38-39).

Accounts vary as to how Lucifer actually tormented Spinello for his gruesome caricature, suggesting, “when he painted the fallen angels, represented Lucifer with such a terrible appearance that he was frightened by his own production, and had the figure of the devil always before him when he shut his eyes; the devil would reproach him for the hideous form which he had given him in the picture (Wickwar, 1919, p79), or that the Devil himself questioned his portraiture skills, as “the fiend appeared to him in the same form, and asked the artist where he had seen him in so frightful an aspect, and why he had treated him so ignominiously (Conway, 1879, p271).

At any rate, Lucifer was clearly unhappy with his portrait and Spinello, who could no doubt weather your average art critic and bad review, was nonetheless unable to cope with the extra satanic attention, and his “mind so dwelt upon the demons he had painted that he went mad, and fancied that Lucifer appeared to him, and cursed him for having represented the fiend and his angels in so revolting a manner. The horror of the artist induced a fever of which he died” (Waters, 1898, p66).

While one hopes not to endanger ones mortal soul through their art, perhaps this illuminates the character of the Devil, be he paparazzi or Prince of Lies, for if anyone should be able to appreciate visionary art, should it not be Lucifer himself, for as Albert Camus observed, “In art, rebellion is consummated and perpetuated in the act of real creation, not in criticism or commentary”.

Conway, Moncure Daniel, 1832-1907. Demonology And Devil-lore. New York: H. Holt and Company, 1879.
Vasari, Giorgio, 1511-1574. Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors & Architects. London: Macmillan and co., ld. & The Medici society, ld., 1912.
Waters, Clara Erskine Clement, 1834-1916. Angels In Art. Boston: L. C. Page, 1898.
Wickwar, John William, 1874-. The Ghost World: Its Realities, Apparitions & Spooks. London: Jarrolds limited, 1919.