September 20, 2012

Angels and Demons at Yale

Miguel Ximenez, God the Father and Saints Crushing Demons, ca. 1490; tempera on panel, 37 1/4 x 26 1/2 in. framed.

 On my way home from NYC yesterday, I decided to stop in at the Yale University Art Gallery to see the Robert Adams photography retrospective, which was terrific; I'll write about it soon. I hadn't been to the museum in many years and didn't know that it had a large expansion, which enables a fuller display of its considerable collections. I had a wonderful time wandering around taking photos of paintings and objects (a post on African art is to come, too) that caught my eye. When I walked into the European Renaissance rooms, the first thing that engaged my attention were the wild demons at the bottom of this extravagant panel painting. Medieval artists seemed to have marvelous fun inventing the wacky forms of devils. The painting gave me a theme for this post on a few of the great paintings at Yale.

Master of the Osservanza, Temptation of Saint Anthony Abbot, ca. 1435-40; tempera on panel, 14 1/2 x 15 in.

Here the devil has appeared in the guise of a beautiful woman to tempt Saint Anthony. I had forgotten that Yale owns this painting, one of my favorites of a favorite artist. I love the way the Master uses clear, crisp forms and punctuated bright color.

Temptation of Saint Anthony, detail

The disturbed facial expression of Anthony, his lifted hand, show his quiet resistance. The landscape is dry and bare, with a river of rocks flowing down hill.

Sano di Pietro, Saint Anthony Abbot Tormented by Demons, ca. 1435-40; tempera on panel, 18 11/16 x 13 1/2 in.

The works of the Master of the Osservanza were once thought to be by Sassetta, but from this painting we can see they might have also been assigned to Sano di Pietro. Poor Saint Anthony is here being beaten by devils with fearsome faces.

Jan Brueghel the Elder, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1594; oil on copper; detail.

To continue the Saint Anthony theme in a later painting, here is a crowd of devilishness and temptation (click on images to enlarge, as always). I can almost hear the raucous noise of all those strange, nasty creatures.

Hieronymous Bosch, An Allegory of Intemperance, ca. 1495-1500; oil on panel, 14 1/8 x 12 3/8 in. 

I think that Bosch is the most inventive and imaginative painter ever, especially when he turns his brush to sins and the dark side of human nature. There aren't any devils in this painting, just humans desiring excess....but I wonder about that person swimming with what looks like a pudding for a head.

Marx Reichlich, A Jester, ca. 1519-20; tempera on panel.

Finally, a painting I found fantastically compelling, with its beautifully rendered figure of the jester and his alive-looking staff. For me he has an aspect of evil, and he seems to be partaking of some bloody meal, although it may just be the egg broken on the table. The small dog adds an air of calm innocence, so perhaps this jester is meant as a sympathetic figure, such as the jesters of Velazquez. I find it hard to believe in the Manichean outlook of Good vs Evil; it's not helpful in a complex world, but it did bring many marvelous paintings into being.


  1. I always felt the so-called Manichean dualism existed within all of us. Not that it resides solely without...but, I suspect there are good and evil forces at work...personally, I rely on guardian angels. :/

    I wonderful blog..again, Altoon.

    1. How interesting, R, that you believe that we all carry good and evil. I think I'm too much of a pragmatic moderate, maybe an optimist, to feel that way. I see people as shaded with many values from light to dark, with very very few actually evil people.

  2. New Haven has an abundance of riches, this museum plus the British Art Museum (by way of beloved Louis Kahn). I love the images you chose--makes me want to hop in my car soon and revisit. Thanks, this was uplifting.

    1. I'm glad you liked these paintings, slowmuse. I plan to make more visits to the museum in coming months, and to the British art gallery, which I didn't have time to see this trip.

  3. That Miguel Ximenez painting is so striking and so powerful! Thanks for sharing, as always.

    1. I'm glad you like that painting, Mona; it's a stunner.

  4. It's terrible that with all the load of history which bears witness to so much horror I still find myself believing that human beings are good and that which is counted 'evil' is in effect a corrupted & perverted form of 'good'.

    PS Why do the 'devils' seem not to be suffering for their wickedness but actually having so much 'fun' ?

    1. ah, I'm glad to know there's another optimist out there.
      It looks to me as though a couple of the devils in the first painting are having a hard time; the rest of them are gleefully wicked.