Sublime Horror

Celebrating the best in horror

Medieval representations of exorcism in art

When one begins to research medieval art, possession and the Christian practice of exorcism appear to thrive amongst pages of illuminated manuscripts and other surviving records from the Middle Ages. The theory of possession, that those who engaged with sins would be possessed by evil spirits, was believed by many.

It was widely believed that women were most likely to be possessed and were usually represented as demoniacs (a person possessed by an evil spirit) in homiletic or hagiographical texts, prayers, and iconography which today allow us to witness the exorcistic rites in medieval Europe.

The painting at the top of this article is from the early sixteenth century, painted by an unknown artist from the Danube School, and it depicts a young woman in chains being exorcised by a Benedictine monk in 1370. A demonic assault had allegedly led this woman to kill members of her family whose bodies are shown behind her on the floor to the left while above her head we can see demons flying toward the window. 

Support Sublime Horror on Patreon

The Benedictine monk is shown placing his stole, the garment worn by priests used during the Mass or the sacraments, around the woman’s neck. During that time, it was widely believed that those who were possessed by demons were not morally or legally responsible for their own behaviour while under demonic influence. 

Saints as exorcists

In the Middle Ages, the role of the exorcist was inseparable from the saint’s life, whose primary function was healing people (Saints and the demoniacs: exorcistic rites in medieval Europe). Similarly to Christ, the medieval saints were expected to have the ability to perform divine healings and conquer demon with their charismatic powers. The exchange between the saints and demons were often illustrated as very personal as each saint had his own demon with whom he constantly battled and was the only one to command them to leave the body of the possessed. 

Three Miracles of Saint Zenobius (1445-1510) by Sandro Botticelli

Three Miracles of Saint Zenobius (1445-1510) by Sandro Botticelli

When fighting the demons possessing those under their charge, saints commonly used three methods of “healing” the afflicted: “cross, the prayer, and laying of hands on the victim”. Other symbolic objects were also used, such as holy water, wine and bread, and in more severe cases the saint would beat the demoniac – they, of course, justified this as it was the demon being beaten, not the sufferer. Salt and water were also seen as tools of purification and sometimes exorcists would use herbs, fumigation and suffumigation, or even amulets.

Botticelli’s painting Three Miracles of Saint Zenobius is the second in a set of four panels illustrating the life of the 5th-century bishop Zenobius, one of the patron saints of Florence. The first miracle, on the left of this second panel, is the curing of two possessed young men. The men, who had beaten their mother and who, after being cursed by her, began to devour their own flesh, are being exorcised by Saint Zenobius while praying before a Crucifix (National Gallery).  This is an excellent example demonstrating the power of the cross and the saint’s authority over the forces of evil.

Chasing the demon

The Exorcism - Folio 166r from Très Riches Heures

Folio 166r showing an exorcism, from Très Riches Heures (1412-16), one of the most important illuminated manuscripts of the fifteenth century.

To educate and protect themselves against the Devil’s traps, many medieval readers turned to texts. Several manuscripts, such as The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander, the Passionary of Weissenau, and Très Riches Heures (see above) contain illuminations depicting exorcistic rituals. Some manuscript illustrations were quite explicit in their warnings, showing how specific sins and the perils of sinful behaviour might provoke the Devil during their life or even upon their death (“Devil Be Gone!” : Temptation, Sin, and Satan in Medieval Manuscripts).

Spinello Aretino, Exorcism of St. Benedict

Exorcism of St Benedict by Spinello Aretino (1387); this fresco in S. Miniato al Monte, Florence, shows “the Golden Legend of the devil who made a stone unliftable until St. Benedict blessed it”.

While exorcisms were commonly performed on people, they were also performed on animals and even objects (see the scene from the fresco above). The demon was often pictured with monstrously animalistic facial and bodily features, with beaks, hooves or claws, tails, and wings. Representations of exorcisms show the demon being driven out of their victims through their mouths and special care had to be taken afterwards to prevent repossession.

12th-century bronze door of the Basilica di San Zeno in Verona, showing a scene of an exorcism.

12th-century bronze door of the Basilica di San Zeno in Verona, showing a scene of an exorcism.

From the early Middle Ages, the practice of exorcism had been closely linked to the baptismal rite established in Rome around 250, which outlined a clear distinction between pre-baptismal exorcism and exorcism of the possessed.

Medieval propaganda

Jesus performs an exorcism with a demon escaping a woman's mouth. Scene from abstinence cloth in the Cathedral of Gurk, Carinthia, Austria.

Jesus performs an exorcism with a demon escaping a woman’s mouth. A scene from the abstinence cloth in the Cathedral of Gurk, Carinthia, Austria (1458).

In the Middle Ages, the existence of demons was a fact of life. European artists and theologians used this powerful concept to shape a terrifying vision of demonic possession influenced by the Apocalyptic perception of the world. The increasingly powerful and dominant Catholic Church used the growing fear of the devil and demonic activities to scare and control people, creating theatrical performances in which demoniacs, knowingly or unwittingly, engaged.

Each of the works of art in this article, even when created for amusement, were meant to warn society of the perils of sinful behaviour and invoke a feeling of horror.

Left: from Passionary of Weissenau (1170-1200); centre: Saint Peter Martyr Exorcising a Woman Possessed by a Devil by Antonio Vivarini (1440-1480); right: Legend of St Francis: Exorcism of the Demons at Arezzo (1297-99) by Giotto di Bondone

Left: from Passionary of Weissenau (1170-1200); centre: Saint Peter Martyr Exorcising a Woman Possessed by a Devil by Antonio Vivarini (1440-1480); right: Legend of St Francis: Exorcism of the Demons at Arezzo (1297-99) by Giotto di Bondone


Sometimes we include links to online stores within articles. If you click on one and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. It's only small but every little helps to keep our lights on.

Advertisement

Did you enjoy this article? Please help our independent coverage of horror continue.

1 Comment

  1. Mrs Al Jamil

    27/10/2019 at 3:18 pm

    I wrote an MA dissertation on English 16th and 17th century exorcisms performed on children and adolescents where a witch had been accused of causing their possession. Desperate parents resorted to both Jesuit and Protestant rites to cure their children.

Leave a Reply

© 2019 Sublime Horror

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑