The face of evil

By: Simeon Dumdum Jr. February 13,2016 - 10:21 PM


The 16th-century Portuguese painter and art critic Francisco da Hollanda hailed his contemporary, the Flemish artist Simon Bening, as the greatest master of illumination (the decoration of manuscripts) in all of Europe.

While boning up on Bening, I came across a sample of his work, rendered on parchment with tempera colors, gold paint and gold leaf, which illustrates one of the three temptations of Christ, for which reason it uses the singular in the title, “The Temptation of Christ.”

In his Gospel, Luke narrates how the Spirit led Jesus out of the Jordan, where John had baptized him, into the desert, and there Jesus stayed for forty days, eating nothing, at the end of which, the devil, taking advantage of his hunger, dared him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” Jesus rebuffed him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

Bening chose this episode for his painting. He portrays the devil as an oldish man with bedraggled gray hair, a goatish face and pointed ears, his left foot (the only one that shows) with claws like those of a bird – the manner in which we traditionally envision him. With his left hand, the devil holds out a stone towards Jesus, who raises his right hand in refusal.

In the background, we see a high cliff, and on top of the overhang two figures – clearly, Jesus and the devil, who “showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant,” saying to him, “I shall give to you all this power and their glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish. All this will be yours, if you worship me.” To which Jesus replied, “You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.”

Likewise, in the background, we see a church with a steeple. Although we cannot make out human shapes there, we recognize Bening’s suggestion of the third temptation, and that the spire represents the parapet of the temple of Jerusalem, on which the devil made Jesus stand and pay attention to his order, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and: ‘With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’”

To which Jesus responded, “It also says, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.’”

Bening sets his painting, not in a desert, where in Luke’s account the temptations transpired, but in a place of natural beauty – a valley with trees and deer standing by a stream. He seems to suggest that the devil works in locations where we least expect him, implying that the devil’s ploy is to make us believe that he does not exist.

I remember a debate between a Christian apologist and a well-known atheist, in which, after the former had presented his case for the existence of God, the latter, when the time came for him to grill his opponent, instead of interrogating the apologist on his arguments, asked this rather irrelevant question: “Do you believe that the devil exists?”

Bening could very well have depicted the devil as a regular fellow, the guy-next-door type, someone familiar and friendly.

In a poem, “Herman Melville,” W. H. Auden wrote:

“Evil is unspectacular and always human, And shares our bed and eats at our own table.”

The account of the temptations of Christ – as well as our experience of the moral tensions within us – is a reminder that, although we tend to miss him because often he puts on a human face, and the circumstances of his appearance are banal, the devil exists.

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TAGS: evil, God, Gospel, Lord, Luke, Portuguese painter and art critic Francisco da Hollanda, temptation

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