The victim, the witness and the perpetrator
Evil and art have a long history. For almost as long as we have existed, we have externalised the things we fear most. The Ancient Egyptians made reliefs of Apophis, the snake god of chaos and darkness continually trying to consume Ra, the Sun god. The Aztecs evoked the feared Tezcatlipoca, the ‘smoking mirror’ in their art. Christians for millennia have depicted the devil haunting the margins of numerous books and manuscripts.
Over the centuries though, the relationship between art and evil has remained in constant flux. Far from being a simple visceral reminder of our greatest fears, evil in art is often used to say more about the observer than the art itself, as I shall go on to demonstrate. I’ve broken evil down into three categories, which I believe broadly cover evil in art, the role it plays and its relation to the viewer.
We, as observers and consumers of art, are either its victims, witnesses, or perpetrators.
I’ll start with what I think is the rarest form of evil in art — that which makes the viewer the victim of evil. It takes a special confronting kind of art to achieve this effect. We must not only be addressed by the piece but overcome by it. For me, there is no greater example of this than Peter Paul Rubens ‘Two Satyrs’, 1619.
The first thing we are drawn to in the painting is the eyes. The satyr is staring directly at us, cheeks flushed, with a wicked grin. Presumably, he has been drinking like his fellow satyr in the background. Satyrs are half-men, half-beast in Greek and Roman mythology and are the attendants of Bacchus (Dionysus). They are distinct from similar creatures like fauns and centaurs and their primary focus is to entertain Bacchus and drink with their wild, indulgent god. They also have a reputation for debauchery, particularly sexual depravity, and are sometimes represented as being permanently erect. Combined with their wild lust, they make for an uncomfortable figure in mythology.
Rubens achieves something disturbing in this painting. Then as now, the context behind the art is important. Understanding this painting means understanding the nature of satyrs. To have one staring at you, grinning, with lust in his eyes is chilling to the core. We are victimised by the evil at play here, our own vulnerability seemingly reflected at us in the satyr’s ever-widening grin.
To be a witness to evil is to be a part of it. We are affected by the things we see and moved to action. Artists for millennia have played on our need to act and encouraged us to judge the subjects of their work. It’s no wonder then that being a witness to evil in art is the most common expression of the relationship between evil and art.
A great deal of religious art revolves around this premise. We are encouraged to judge the crucifiers and sympathise with Christ. It is a simple and sometimes passive relationship, meant to inspire contemplation of the suffering. But a huge amount of art play with us as witnesses on a different level.
A masterful example of this is William Bouguereau’s, ‘Dante and Virgil’, 1850. Deep in the bowels of Inferno, in a region known as the Malebolge (Rottenpockets), Dante, Virgil and a demon witness two men fighting with one another. Capocchio, a heretic, is bitten by the fraudster Gianni Schicchi. The violence here is visceral and shocking. To the bottom right a man lays crippled in pain and emerging from a glowing pit behind him are several other groups battling one another. Dante and Virgil are clearly sickened by what they see, but the demon revels in it. He is a creature of evil that delights in evil.
Bouguereau has given us an interesting dynamic here, offering us two different choices. We know that these two men have been condemned to Hell for their crimes. We are not asked to judge whether they are guilty because we already know they are. What Bouguereau is subtly implying here has more to do with us as viewers of the art than the figures in it.
Put simply, he asks whether you are horrified by the animal barbarity of the men’s fate, or revel in it as the demon does. Bouguereau seems to suggest that you’re doing the latter. Of all the characters in the painting, the demon is the only one really looking out at you. His smile is almost conspiratorial, and his horrific features invite us to contemplate our own inner thoughts on how punishment and retribution must be exacted.
This kind of intimate relationship between subject and witness is different from what we find in many other paintings where we witness evil acts. For example, Caravaggio’s, ‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’, 1558–1602, is powerful and shocking, but the focus is mostly on Judith. The brilliant light, her determined face and firm grip of the blade all seem to me to suggest a commitment and reassure the viewer that although this is a horrific, ‘evil’ act, it is right.
Picasso’s, ‘Guernica’, 1937, offers a different relationship too. We see the trauma of Nazi and Fascist Italy’s bombing campaign on the town of Guernica at the request of the Spanish nationalists. Surrealism here offers us nothing less than a world falling apart. Buildings burn, swords are broken, and men and animals lie in pieces. This is a painting of war on an industrial scale and Picasso overwhelms us with it. We are still witnesses here, but Picasso suggests that our judgement is meaningless. Our voices are drowned out by the falling of Fascist bombs, the lick of flames and the screams of the dying.
Finally, and perhaps most uniquely, we can be perpetrators of evil in art. This is where the true ‘allure of evil’ comes in. While Bouguereau’s demon asks us to think about ourselves, art where we take part in the evil, however subtly, asks no such thing of us.
In Europe, this type of art most commonly depicts Satan. The change from monstrous abomination to the complicated anti-hero Satan has become today is mostly the result of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Milton depicts a rebellious bad boy fighting against the establishment. His Satan is a far cry from the epitome of evil in we find in Christianity. Artists are quickly drawn to the idea. In fact, I would go so far as to say that our understanding of the devil/Satan/Lucifer should be considered in pre and post-Milton terms, especially where art is concerned.
William Blake’s, ‘Satan Arousing the Rebel Angels’, 1808 is a testament to this. Here Satan is powerful and beautiful, a moving figure giving a rousing speech. We are encouraged to sympathise with him. Likewise, Thomas Stothard’s, ‘Satan Summoning His Legions,’ (c. 1790), presents us with a gilled figure, summoning an army. He appears almost imperial, a worthy challenger to the Almighty. We know that the figure in these paintings is meant to be emblematic of evil, and yet he is seductive and alluring. He seems passionate, a revolutionary and rebel, someone we could follow. The artists’ triumph here is to make us forget that evil is evil and draw us closer to darkness than we would ever have dared go ourselves.
These are the first steps toward where we are today with TV shows like Lucifer and Supernatural, where the devil is charming, and his diabolical nature extends no further than his wicked grin. Evil is no longer evil. It is sexy, passionate and inviting. Our crime is being tempted by it. We are co-conspirators and would-be rebels. Our inner minds betray us as we feel the pull to figures like Satan.
As art continues to evolve so will our relationship with evil. New mediums, materials and artists will revolutionise the field, but their goals will remain the same. To bring forth the things that torment our nightmares and to reflect back at us those parts of ourselves we would rather remain hidden.
To be a creative can often feel like a choice that is both insane and thrilling in equal measure. There are thousands of jobs that are far more certain and stable than an artist’s work, yet true creatives know that there really is not a choice to be made. The artist must art. Therefore, the artist must find a way to live in the uncertain, wild space between what success looks like to others and what success feels like to themselves. Choosing a creative career is not something for the weak-willed, the comfort-chasers, the ones who need to know how their life will splay out ahead of them for years and years to come. Those are noble endeavors — to value comfort and security — but a creative sacrifices almost all convention in the name of art.
I doubt any of us regret it. We know that life is impermanent and we never know when our last day will be. We’d rather create the work that inspires us most and let it kill us.
1. Highly creative people sacrifice a comfortable life for a big, messy, weird, interesting life
Most creatives learn quickly that comfort and inspiration do not live harmoniously. You can have one, but not the other. Inspiration comes from action, from experimentation, from the chaos, the fire, the big wins and the big fails. In order to art and art well, you must live and live well. And, to live well is to constantly be pushing yourself out of what’s comfortable and into what’s unknown. This is the source of inspiration: whatever lay on the outer edges of comfort.
2. They sacrifice certainty for a big question mark about the future
Creatives have mastered the art of the unknown. Most of them wear this as a badge of honor, because they have learned the hard way that the best laid plans are the easiest sources of disappointment. Nothing about a creative life exists on a straight line. It’s like a squiggly line that often goes backward and then propels forward then stays in one place for an unnervingly long amount of time. There is no plan. The future is a shrug of the shoulders. The words “I don’t know” are the artist’s anthem. To not know is to be open to knowing, to be led, and the creative thrives there.
3. They sacrifice a stable life for the freedom to say yes at any moment
While creatives might have a yearning to build a life and put down roots, they know that there’s always a chance that their lives could be uprooted at any moment. Because an artist does not follow a set path, they have to be consistently open to saying YES quickly and without reservation. They have to be willing to uproot their lives in order to follow the inspiration or the opportunity whenever it comes up. Freedom is the artist’s currency.
4. They sacrifice approval from others for approval of themselves
Most art is created alone in a dark room. It’s thankless work. It’s like doing spec work constantly with the hope that, one day, it will pay off. If creatives needed approval from others to begin, they would never start (and some brilliant creatives never do start, sadly). Instead, artists know that it’s a necessity to approve of themselves, to believe in their work and, as equally important, to believe in the process. Creatives know that chasing approval will always prolong the work from ever leaving their minds, so they simply learn to give themselves the permission they may desire from others.
5. They sacrifice being accepted and understood by the world for being a visionary who may or may not be ever understood
Creatives know that any visionary work will not always be immediately understood or accepted. They accept that they may not ever be accepted or understood — yet make their art any way. They don’t look outside of themselves for the answers, for permission. They simply create whether anyone appreciates it or not.
6. They sacrifice all the “shoulds” for what their heart leads them to create
Creatives know that they can easily “should” their way into a miserable, uninspired life. They know that the world is built on “shoulds” — what this person should or shouldn’t do, how others should or shouldn’t live. Artists know that conventions and traditions hardly inspire creative work, that the only way to listen to what their heart yearns to make is to shut out the “shoulds” of the world and find their own way. This is an arduous process, to empty out themselves from all the beliefs of who they should be and, instead, to allow themselves to simply be who they are now and create what they need to create now.
7. They sacrifice constant happiness for the emotional spectrum of self-growth
Artists know that pursuing self-growth means letting go of the desire to be in a constant state of happiness. To grow is to shed old versions of self, which is to also say to grow is to be able to create new versions of art. The only way the art grows and evolves is when the artist grows and evolves. Every creative soon realizes that self-growth is a state of being and that means to be in almost constant flux. The process of evolvement has no room for holding tight to only one emotion — say, happiness — and needs to endure the entire spectrum of emotions to truly evolve. To face who they are as angry, sad, grief-stricken, resentful, bored is to allow themselves to evolve.
8. They sacrifice superficial relationships and work for vulnerable relationships and work
While creating uninspired art is something all creatives have likely had to do in their past — bills are hard — highly creative people feel even more strongly about making art from a vulnerable, real place. They know that at the heart of artistic genius is vulnerability, a brave person who is willing to be rejected, who is willing to share their soul with a world who may not be very kind to it. While creatives know that superficial work and relationships are oftentimes easier to maintain — and success is often easier to come by for the superficial — they know that art is a choice and a privilege and they always want to create from the deepest parts of themselves.
9. They sacrifice their pride for empathy and compassion
The best kind of art comes from a place of empathy and compassion, from an inherent curiosity around the human experience. Highly creative people understand that their curiosity around humanity is what brings them to the page, the instrument, the canvas, the laptop, the camera, the drawing board. Empathy does not exist with pride. It takes a certain degree of humility to have an empathic view of the world and artists understand that at the core of their work is a desire to move people with their art. This means they have a high level of respect for whoever will come into contact with their work. Creatives know that their tender heart, their empathy, their compassion is at the heart of their brilliance and they will eschew pride and arrogance in order to step deeper into that brilliance.
10. They sacrifice the perception of success for their own definition of success
From the outside, a creative’s life may not look very successful if success is defined by cultural expectations. An artist learns quickly that they must define success for themselves otherwise they will drown underneath other people’s expectations. In their conviction of self, they are free to create and build their life however they desire. Not having to “measure up” or prove anything to others is one of the most important things a creative must learn for themselves — because they could spend their entire artistic life trying to prove themselves and always come up short.
11. They sacrifice the life people told them they should have for a life they love, a life that is inspiring and fucking thrilling
Because that’s the whole point. To create is a privilege, one that artists know not to take for granted. To deny a conventional life is a risk, but not as great a risk as to deny their heart.
Inspired by natural form, Brunelleschi’s famous Florentine dome remains the biggest of its kind ever built…
A church, of some sort, had stood at the site of Florence Cathedral since the fourth-century. Not surprisingly, by the thirteenth-century, it was no longer in a good state of repair and in dire need of an overhaul. The building of the ‘new’ cathedral began in 1296 and was not completed until 1436. That’s 140 years under construction.
The original designs for ‘Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore’ were laid-out by the the architect and sculptor, Arnolfo di Cambio, and were startlingly different from the medieval fashion of the time. Seeking inspiration from classical buildings, he’d avoided towers, high arches, and flying buttresses. Thus, the building of Florence Cathedral signalled the decline of the Gothic and ushered in the Renaissance.
Hoping to recreate the grandeur of Rome’s Pantheon, he’d left room for a massive dome with a span of around 150 feet, but the secrets of such monumental scale construction had been long lost, as had the formula for the Roman structural concrete used in the dome of the Pantheon. When Arnolfo di Cambio died in 1302, he’d neglected to share any plans for that part…
Work on the Cathedral slowed and the local parishioners continued to use the smaller medieval church, still standing within the larger, incomplete structure being built around it. Construction resumed in earnest some thirty year later when Giotto di Bondone was placed in charge of the project. He managed to avoid working on the dome, instead concentrating on adding his impressive and aesthetically pleasing campanile tower.
After Giotto’s death in 1337, his collaborator Andrea Pisano stepped-up to oversee the continued construction for the next decade, until he succumbed to the Black Death in 1348. Thereafter, work on the cathedral was sporadic, directed by a series of architects who didn’t deviate significantly from the original vision of Arnolfo di Cambio. The ancient basilica within was finally demolished and the Cathedral’s nave was then completed by 1380.
There was just the one problem… A huge hole remained in the roof that needed to be covered with a vast dome! Not one in the succession of chief architects had managed to come up with a suitable solution and the cathedral remained open to the elements.
Among several artists to advise on the design and décor was Andrea di Bonaiuto da Firenze who was also working on frescoes for the Chapter House of the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella — another prominent Florentine church. One of his panels there, Allegory of the Militant and Triumphant Church, was intended to glorify the achievements of the Church in general and the Dominican order in particular.
Problem was, that Andrea di Bonaiuto had imagined the Cathedral topped with its impressively voluminous dome. The patrons liked his ‘concept art’ and anything less would now imply the church was not quite as triumphant as the fresco proclaimed… Of course, painting an imagined dome wasn’t the same as building a real one!
The patrons really needed to find an exceptional architect, capable of overseeing the construction of an ostentatious dome like no other. They attached an attractive fee of 200 florins to the commission yet no architect they asked thought it was possible to build such a dome.
So, they cast around outside the field and were intrigued when Filippo Brunelleschi, a local goldsmith with no prior building commissions, claimed he was the man they were looking for.
How did Brunelleschi convince the patrons to take a gamble on him when many of his contemporaries were also competing for such a prestigious job? Reputedly, it was all down to something he did with an egg…
The story goes that when he gave his pitch for the project, he had no plans to show! Instead, he presented the panel with an egg and set them a seemingly impossible challenge: He asked them to balance the egg on end.
After each of the patrons and masons had passed the egg round and failed his challenge, Brunelleschi took back the egg and with a decisive gesture brought it down onto the table top with just enough force to impact the shell at the blunt end, effectively flattening the small air space within the shell so that the egg stood stable and upright. No mess.
The panel dismissed his little trick, claiming that any one of them could’ve done that! Brunelleschi pointed out that, nevertheless, not one of them had. He knew that they were reluctant to entrust such grand work to a ‘newbie’ with no formal training but argued that if he explained his plans to build the great dome, then any architect could do that, too. They were impressed enough with this upstart’s audacity that they decided to take a chance.
It seems things did not go quite as smoothly as this oft-told tale suggests as there are also accounts of Brunelleschi, “a buffoon and a babbler,” being forcibly ejected from the assemblies on more than one occasion! Although they did finally award him the commission, his main competitor, Lorenzo Ghiberti, was appointed as his ‘supervisor’ on equal pay.
Also, once the contracts were drawn up, Brunelleschi did explain, in detail, the ingenious and highly original construction techniques he was to employ. He did this using scale models made out of precisely carved wooden blocks and would also carve explanatory maquettes out of wax and, on occasions, vegetables…
He had sought the solution not in the work of predecessors but in the study of nature — something that marks him as ‘a Renaissance man’. If grasped in a fist, it takes huge effort to crack a humble hen’s egg and the mechanical strength of such a fragile material had impressed him. He’d discovered how parabolic curves distribute force tangentially, giving such forms incredible load-bearing properties.
The religious significance of eggs would’ve also been an influence on his thinking. The oval had long been an alchemical symbol for the fifth element of spirit and the egg had become a Christian metaphor of the everlasting Holy Spirit. This association may date back 60,000 years to decorated ostrich eggs in prehistoric African culture. Eggs, often made from precious metals, were placed in the tombs of kings in ancient Egypt as a symbol of rebirth into the afterlife. Hence the traditional exchange of Easter eggs as gifts to commemorate the Resurrection. Originally, they represented Christ’s tomb and the potential of new life, sealed within.
Brunelleschi devised a way to build without the use of internal scaffolding, for which there wasn’t enough available timber anyway, thus enabling use of the church to continue uninterrupted. He employed an array of processes combined in unprecedented ways to build the dome that has survived to this day.
It is, in fact, two domes, one inside the other. The lower sections are built of stone, laid out in a series of smaller, overlapping curves. Each layer is stabilised by the weight of the one above and so forth. He solved the problem of lifting the masonry without using a traditional scaffold by ‘scaling-up’ his goldsmith’s experience of working with clock mechanisms. He invented a new, ox-driven pulley system that used an ingenious clutch and gear system with giant ropes that had to be specially made by shipwrights.
The inner ‘shell’ was strengthened by hoops of wood and metal that act like the restraining bands around a barrel. This prevented the load-bearing parabolic curves from distorting and was a new way of countering the spreading tendency without the use of hefty buttresses. The outer dome is stabilised with concealed chains attached to the inner.
The inner dome was built to be seen from the cathedral’s interior below, its concave surface suitable for decoration, whilst the outer dome was intended to be viewed from outside. Its convex surface was finished with brick, partially for aesthetic reasons, and because it was a much lighter material than stone.
The dome was completed by March 1436 though the finishing touch of the ‘lantern’ at its top was not added until 1461, posthumously created according to Brunelleschi’s design by his associate, Michelozzo di Bartolomeo Michelozzi.
The frescoes for the interior would be designed a century later by Giorgio Vasari who began the decoration in 1568. They were completed in 1579 by Federico Zuccari. However, the cathedral’s outer façade was not entirely finished until the nineteenth-century.
Brunelleschi had carried his egg theme right through from initial inspiration to final product. Not only has the shape provided an enduring structural integrity, it also works to visually compensate for foreshortening. When viewed from the streets below, the subtly elongated oval appears domed, rather than looking ‘flattened’ as a true hemisphere would. The completed structure was, and still is, the biggest masonry dome ever built.