Early Modern Exchanges


Demonic Possession

11 March 2014, 5:00 pm

Saint Wolfgang and the Devil, by Michael Pacher

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Early Modern Exchanges


Room 307, SELCS Common Room, Foster Court, Malet Place, off Torrington Place, UCL, London, WC1E 7JG

Hilaire Kallendorf (Texas A&M University), The Devil in Art

The depiction of demons departing from a human body constitutes a dialectic between presence and absence.

When faced with these paintings, we ask:  do the spectators in the painting see the demons departing?  Or does only the exorcist?  Or are we the only privileged witnesses?  Our pleasure in these images is undoubtedly voyeuristic. Perhaps they require the use of the inner eye as well as the outer one.  By viewing portrayals of the unportrayable, we feel the tension between borderline experience and liminal representation.

Paintings of exorcisms are at once narrative and iconic. These pictorial representations are the narrative stories of repeated manifestations of an ico - of a recurrent demonophany.  Counter-Reformation theoreticians of the iconic such as Carducho and Pacheco, following the precedent of Alberti, insisted that artists’ material either must be or must be assumed to be visible.  The artists who followed their precepts, working toward an aesthetic of the approximative, placed the devil in the latter category.  The resultant imaginative license provided prime opportunities for Mannerist hyperbole.

This paper will begin with general depictions of the devil and then focus specifically on exorcism in art.  Inspired by the work of Victor Stoichita with early modern paintings of mysticism, this study examines paintings of exorcism, another manifestation of bodies in ecstasy.  When the faithful come into contact with the Sacred (in the case of mysticism) as well as with the diabolical (in the case of exorcism) in art, the Church acts as intermediary—both in the person of the sanctioned mystic or exorcist and in the object of the sanctioned painting.  Thus one purpose of this paper will be to explore the rôle of this sub-genre of highly rhetorical, even manipulative paintings assimilated by the Counter-Reformation to the exercise of faith.