November 8, 2011

The Devil in the Details

Fresco No.20 in a cycle of the scenes chronicling the life and death of St. Francis
Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi
We all know what teachers always say—or, er, used to say—when they explain a difficult concept to students, and, in particular, when they try to make their pupils aware about the importance of distinguishing between main points and supporting details, or between major and minor details, or what may erroneously seem such: ‘The devil is in the details’ …

Good old motto! Even in the night in which all cows are black, that is to say in our own “postmodern” age—but this is quite another story. So what? Well, all of the above is just to introduce a very interesting news item which clearly exemplifies the importance of paying attention to details:

Art restorers have discovered the figure of a devil hidden in the clouds of one of the most famous frescos by Giotto in the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi, church officials said on Saturday.
The devil was hidden in the details of clouds at the top of fresco number 20 in the cycle of the scenes in the life and death of St Francis painted by Giotto in the 13th century.
The discovery was made by Italian art historian Chiara Frugoni. It shows a profile of a figure with a hooked nose, a sly smile, and dark horns hidden among the clouds in the panel of the scene depicting the death of St Francis.
The figure is difficult to see from the floor of the basilica but emerges clearly in close-up photography. Sergio Fusetti, the chief restorer of the basilica, said Giotto probably never wanted the image of the devil to be a main part of the fresco and may have painted it in among the clouds 'to have a bit of fun'.
The master may have painted it to spite someone he knew by portraying him as a devil in the painting, Fusetti said on the convent's website.
The artwork in the basilica in the convent where St Francis is buried was last restored after it was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1997. [Reuters]

A detail of the fresco in which the profiled face of a devil is seen 
REUTERS/Basilica of St Francis in Assisi/Handout

However, apart from the pay-attention-to-details thing, there is the problem of finding out/understanding why the master may have hidden the profiled face of a devil with a hooked nose, a sly smile, and dark horns in the clouds of one of his most famous frescos in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. Perhaps to spite someone he knew by portraying him as a devil and “to have a bit of fun,” as Sergio Fusetti said on the convent’s website? Well, maybe so, maybe not, it’s difficult to say, and I’m no expert on the matter. But then again, as far as I know, a painter who came after generations of “mere” manufacturers of symbols, illustrations, and allegories may have wanted to leave a cryptic message. On the other hand, many medieval cathedrals included gargoyles and chimeras—used as a representation of evil—the most famous examples of which are those of Notre Dame de Paris. Such representations were intended to objectivize—and distance ourselves from—the evil. And then again, even though Giotto has been called the father of Renaissance art, he was a man of the Middle Ages.

Click to enlarge
Here (on the right) is, as an example of what I’m talking about, a picture I took some years ago at the Sacra di San Michele, in Piedmont. It shows a big-headed monster (a devil?) which dominates one of the entrances of the monastery and which is making faces at someone. At whom, exactly? At the monks, of course.

The moral of the story might be, Not every monster/devil is evil, some are just misunderstood.


  1. Great post! Just a quick question: If not every devil is evil, then what qualifies a devil as an evil to be called a devil (that is evil)?

  2. OK Rob, but why the hell the big-headed monster/devil is laughing at the monks?

    Damn good post, by the way! :-)

  3. @ Ann:
    Uhm, that's a hard question...
    A strong sulphur stench, I suppose...

  4. @ Martin:
    Answering your question would need a very long response! In a nutshell,I'd put it like this: "Big Head" is mocking the monks because they aren't up to anything... because they aren't as good as they think they are. By doing so he "corrects" them and prevents them from being proud of themselves, which is of course very bad for monks...