Literature, movies, and television have portrayed Satan as a serpent, a horned beast, a small boy, and an attractive man. Which of these (if any) offers an accurate visual portrayal of the devil? Does the Bible tell us how to recognize Satan in a visual sense? Could a police sketch artist use the Word of God to produce a sketch of the Evil One?
Satan and the Visual Arts
An article from Live Science reports that “the earliest known suggested depiction of Satan is in a sixth-century mosaic [depicting] the devil as an ethereal blue angel.” As he divides the sheep from the goats, Christ stands in the middle between Satan and another angel, perhaps the Archangel Michael or Gabriel.
Satan is dressed in blue — so striking since he is so often portrayed in red. But an article by Alistaire Sooke detailing the evolution of artistic renderings of Satan perhaps gives us a clue to the choice of that color.
Sooke explains how the devil’s ugly, horned features were influenced by Bes, an Egyptian god frequently portrayed in blue. The earliest Christian art adopted the color but not Bes’ features. Later, of course, blue was dropped, but those Bes-like pagan features came to represent evil.
“Bes’s grotesque expression was a model for the grisly visage of the Devil.” He was popular in ancient Egypt: “Friend to beer-swilling carousers and expectant mothers alike, he warded off noxious spirits like a gargoyle on a medieval church.”
Perhaps this also helps to account for the idea among non-believers that hell is a place of revelry, a non-stop party, rather than the pit of eternal damnation and suffering, which the Bible describes.
Over time, artists imagined Satan as featuring distorted, grotesque combinations of animal and human characteristics. “Depictions of the devil during the Medieval period were commonly dragon-like,” says the writer at Live Science.
He was portrayed as a goat, as a winged creature with a man’s face, as a human being in the style of a Greek god, and as a red creature with horns.
One anti-suffrage postcard from around 1900 shows the devil with red skin, a tail, a pointed face, a skinny beard, and horns. He is running from the woman in fear despite the fact that he holds a pitchfork. He seems benign in comparison with the woman.
The Omen, though a work of fiction, provides a particularly poignant idea of the devil’s real power, which resides in his ability to deceive. What could be less threatening than a child?
In The Omen, the Antichrist, taking the form of a baby, is raised in an American home. Everyone around him dies horrifically, which is no coincidence.
Many years later, the TV show Lucifer suggests that Satan could be a good-looking man who is dangerous but possesses a soft side. He is simply misunderstood, like the devil in Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Literary Depictions of Satan
Paradise Lost “is most noted for Milton’s sympathetic treatment of Satan who is both the anti-hero and antagonist.” Allyson Knirk of Oakland University in Michigan discussed illustrations of Satan created for the 1688 edition of this epic poem.
These engravings depict Satan as a beast sporting a “short tail, hairy thighs, no wings, spurred heels, elongated ears and pointed horns.”
Many scholars and readers consider Milton’s Satan to be an antihero: complex, misunderstood, a character who might have been good if God had not been a tyrant. He was once beautiful, but inner turmoil tainted his outer appearance.
More recently, in The Stand, Stephen King created Randall Flagg to be “the embodiment of evil, an antichrist-like being whose goal is destruction and death.” There is no sympathetic side to this character. His slow, steady step strikes a note of fear in the hearts of readers.
Maximilian Rudwin, an American scholar, writing approximately a century ago, explained why the devil fascinates readers and writers. “The fair angels — perfect in their virtues — are beyond our ken, but the fallen angels, with all their faults and foibles, are of our kin.”
Ordinary human beings can relate to the fallenness, the ugliness, of Satan. Meanwhile, we cannot relate to the perfection of angels or aspire to be like them.
Their beauty and goodness are out of reach. For this reason, writers, musicians, and artists traditionally have and will continue to feel sympathy for and familiarity with the character of Satan.
How Does the Bible Describe Satan?
Scripture is truth, not fiction, and God’s workers were careful to describe the devil as he really is.
How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low!(Isaiah 14:12).
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour(1 Peter 5:8).
Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14).
In Revelation 12:9,he is“the great dragon” and “ancient serpent.”
He is the “thief” of John 10:10 who comes to “kill and destroy.”
The Greek word for serpent (ophis)means “a snake, figuratively, (as a type of sly cunning) an artful malicious person, especially Satan.” The dragon of Revelation 12:9 is a magnified version of the serpent. Drakón means “a dragon or huge serpent.”
And Peter’s image of the “roaring lion” calls to mind both the devouring beast of the Book of Daniel and the Lion of Judah. Revelation 5:5 tells us that this latter Lion has overcome death, so we no longer weep.
This is Jesus. Peter’s prowling animal is the predatory devil over whom the risen Christ was victorious. Faithful believers in Christ have also had victory over that prowling beast.
The biblical Satan is in no way sympathetic; not an antihero but fully evil. Satan can alter his appearance to frighten his opponent, freeze the blood of his prey, and beguile the unwary.
He is the antithesis of Christ: fallen star, hungry monster, liar. Christ is the risen Star. He protects the believer by his Spirit. Christ is truth and light, not lies and darkness.
Satan could be compared to a lenticular picture. Viewed from one angle, one observes an attractive face. Move just a little to one side, and one sees only a skull; death; ugly emptiness.
When human beings fail to see people as Christ sees them, they see others in the temporal sense only.
The devil gives them what they want: an appearance of order and reliability, charisma and power, or wisdom and gentle beauty. Christians are vulnerable to Satan’s ruse too.
Will We Recognize Satan by His Looks?
The devil is alive and active right now. Just as “you will know [disciples] by their fruit” (Matthew 7:16), you will not know a believer or an unbeliever on the basis of looks.
Like the little boy or the attractive antihero, the devil can appear harmless, beautiful, or alluring; however, just as Christ’s glory is reflected in the faces of those who love him, Satan’s ugliness is revealed in people when they refuse to follow the Lord. That facade gives way to ugly motivations, rebellion, treason, and death.