(This essay is part of an unpublished book project on the Limbourg Brothers written in 1987-89.)
Medieval Allegory and the Invention of Christian Narratives
The story of Satan is not found in the Bible. Instead it was developed by early Christian theologians skilled in the creative allegorizing of Scripture whereby texts could signify anything limited only by the interpreter’s imagination and the larger framework of contemporary values. For example, the drunkenness of the naked Noah prophesied the stripping of the crucified Christ and the wine of the Eucharist. Isaiah’s “a stem shall spring forth” prophesied the virgin birth of Christ because the Latin virga (stem) resembled virga (virgin). Far-fetched etymological correspondences were particularly appealing as a principal of medieval allegory because they offered an infinity of correspondences and analogies. Although fanciful allegorical interpretation was ridiculed in later years by Renaissance humanists and Protestant reformers, it enjoyed an unquestioned truth in the Middle Ages. For nothing was more self-evident than the allegorical nature of the universe. To allegorize was to reveal the correspondences and relationships within the larger, divine order where everything had purpose and symbolic meaning.
A lack of Scriptural information was no impediment to later writers piecing together larger narratives and filling in the Bible’s many gaps. Indeed, writers were liberated by the absence of clear Biblical language. Such was the case with Satan whose theological importance was too great to lack a satisfactory biography. To remedy Scripture, or rather, to reveal Scripture’s hidden biography), early Christian theologians fabricated the story of Satan as a fallen angel named Lucifer who once sat at the right hand of God. Jealous of God’s authority, he supposedly schemed with other angels to seize power but was expelled from heaven with his followers. Here medieval theologians elaborated a few short passages in the Old Testament, especially Isaiah 14:12-15.
“How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.” Isaiah never identifies Lucifer as an angel or as Satan. And he says nothing more about Lucifer because this mysterious figure appears only momentarily as an example for a very different set of topics. For Isaiah is focused on the history of God’s chosen people, the Israelites, under the harsh bondage and captivity of the Assyrian Empire. Throughout the long discussion, Isaiah moves back and forth between blaming the Israelites for their enslavement which is God’s punishment for their sinful ways, and condemning the Assyrians in stronger terms for their pride, greed, drunkenness, lechery, and lack of piety. For Isaiah, the large and wealthy Assyrian city of Babylon represents Assyrian decadence at its worst (like other sin cities described in the Old Testament such as Sodom and Gomorrah). As God’s chosen people, the Israelites must be chastised for their occasional immortality but Isaiah promises God will ultimately deliver them from their Assyrian bondage by sending a rival empire to destroy their captors. This is the discussion where Isaiah briefly introduces the fable of Lucifer’s ambition and punishment as another example of arrogance punished by God. As the Israelites are punished for their sinful ways with Assyrian captivity, as Lucifer was punished and cast down into Hell, so the Assyrians will be punished even more terribly, without the mercy God shows to his chosen people. Thus Isaiah promises that God will use a rival empire to wipe out Assyria, rape their women, kill their children, and enslave them to the Israelites, thereby transforming captives into captors. Here is the larger text.
Behold, the day of the LORD cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate: and he shall destroy the sinners thereof out of it. For the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light: the sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine. And I will punish the world for their evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; and I will cause the arrogancy of the proud to cease, and will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible. . . . Every one [sinner] that is found shall be thrust through; and every one that is joined unto them shall fall by the sword. Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished. . . . Their bows [a metaphor for the weapons of divine wrath] also shall dash the young men to pieces; and they shall have no pity on the fruit of the womb; their eyes shall not spare children. And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms . . . shall be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. It shall never be inhabited . . . For the LORD will have mercy on Jacob, and will yet choose Israel, And the people shall take them [evil Babylonians] and bring them to their place: and the house of Israel shall possess them in the land of the LORD for servants and handmaids: and they shall take them captives, whose captives they were; and they shall rule over their oppressors. And it shall come to pass in the day that the LORD shall give thee rest from thy sorrow, and from thy fear, and from the hard bondage wherein thou wast made to serve . . . How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit. (Isaiah 13:9-14:15)
Unlike other medieval interpretations fabricating narratives and symbolic correspondences out of thin air, the short passage in Isaiah offered at least the bare bones for later Christian biographies of Lucifer. From this and still more fragmentary and unrelated Biblical passages, early Christian writers constructed a fuller narrative of Lucifer’s revolt and his expulsion from heaven.
Although known in literature since the early Christian period, the expulsion of the rebel angels began to appear as an artistic subject only in the late Middle Ages and took on wider currency in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when secular and religious authorities were consolidating and centralizing power. The subject would become a favorite in Catholic church art after the “rebellion” of Protestant “heretics” in 1518. Examples include Frans Floris’ large altarpiece for the Cathedral in Antwerp and Rubens’ altarpieces for Jesuits churches in Germany. In the more secular sphere of court art, the Fall of the Rebel Angels became an appealing theme with the rise of the centralized nation state in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Soon after Louis XIV crushed a rebellion of nobles and burgher in the civil war known as the Fronde, his ministers commissioned a large fresco of the Fall of the Rebel Angels for the ceiling of the royal chapel at Versailles.
Already in the late fourteenth century, the story of rebellion from below punished by a wrathful God took on new interest for secular rulers faced with rebellion from below. Thus the chronicler, Froissart, compared the English peasant uprising of 1381 to the rebel angels.
“These bad people … began to rebel because, they said, they were held too much in subjection, and when the world began there had been no serfs and could not be, unless they had rebelled against their lord, as Lucifer did against God; but they were not of that stature, being neither angels nor spirits, but men formed in the image of their masters, and they were treated like animals. This was a thing they could no longer endure, wishing rather to be all one and the same. [The rebels said] ’ Good people, things cannot go right in England and never will, until goods are held in common and there are no more villeins and gentlefolk, but we are all one and the same, and, if they worked for their masters, they wanted to have wages for it.’ In these machinations they had been greatly encouraged originally by a crack-brained priest of Kent called John Ball …” The comparison of rebellious peasants led by a “crack-brained” priest to the arrogant Lucifer helped demonize the peasantry even as it sanctioned the terrible punishment imposed by the triumphant and wrathful English king who proceeded through “all parts of England where his people had rebelled. Over fifteen hundred people were put to death by beheading and hanging” (Froissart).
The expulsion and punishment of the rebel angels was even more topical in France in the first two decades of the fifteenth century. In the mid teens when the Limbourgs were painting the Duke of Berry’s prayer book, France was engulfed in a civil war dividing the royal family between the king and the Duke of Burgundy. At that moment, the rebellion and punishment of God’s right hand angel would have assumed special significance for the king’s brother, the Duke of Berry. The threat of rebellion from below was especially acute in Paris during these years as the weakness of the crown encouraged a separate but related rebellion of artisans within Paris. Encouraged by the Burgundian faction in the city, Parisian artisans rioted and ransacked a number of palaces including the residence of the Duke of Berry himself.
At a time when Biblical examples were the common currency of every conceivable discussion, it is no surprise to see that the Limbourg Brothers flattered their royal patron by introducing the Expulsion of the Rebel Angels into his prayer book. To make explicit the comparisons to current events in France, they dressed the angel army in the heavens as French knights while restricting their colors to the French royal blue and gold. To heighten God’s supreme authority, they also crowned God the Father with a papal tiara at a time when kings frequently invoked papal supremacy to add religious parallels to own royal authority. Royal values also informed the Limbourg Brothers’ symmetrical composition with a glowing circle at the top and bottom of the image, each with an all-powerful man set within it. Ironically, the unquestioned power of Satan in Hell was as important to theological ideas of cosmic order as it was politically to ideas of the well-governed kingdom. For all its chaos and disorder, Hell also appeared in its own way as an image of good government and participated in the larger symmetries of the page which were at once sacred and royal. As God ruled in heaven, so Satan ruled in Hell. A hell without an all-powerful male ruler was an impossibility.