The Devil in Eastern Orthodox Iconography
Representations of the Devil and his fallen brethren are not uncommon in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. On the contrary, devils are traditional to Orthodox icons and church murals depicting the Last Judgment and various scenes of Hell. Some Romanian Orthodox churches from Transylvania, dating from the 13th to the 19th century, house some of the most fascinating such depictions on their walls. These churches are popularly known across Romania as bisericile cu draci – the devil churches. Here are a few of them:
Saint Archangel Michael Church, Gurasada, Hunedoara County
Judgment Day scenes depicting devils tormenting sinners: some are hanged, others are burned and others are boiled in cauldrons. In the second picture we can see an angel with golden wings struggling to save a soul from the grasp of a devil in an apocalyptic tug of war. The murals date back to 1765.
Church of the Holy Archangels Michael and Gabriel, Almaș-Săliște, Hunedoara County
Captain Potelici, a devil, is seizing two sinners. The one on the left is “the miller who overtaxes [his fellow villagers]”, seen with a millstone tied to his neck and a measuring cone on his head. During those times, the village miller used to keep a percentage of grain from each villager as a tax for grinding it into flour. The sinner on the right is “the innkeeper who dilutes wine with water and sells it by the small cup [for full price]”. Next to them, further right, we can see “the woman who doesn’t make babies” with snakes biting her breasts. Lastly, a devil named Cocoti is riding a woman like a horse: “the witch who summons the Devil and sends him to the church service”.
Top panel: a devil named Raija is tying together “the fornicators, the whores, the thieves, and the witches who hex milk”. To the right, Notea is carrying “the officials and the jurors who pass crooked judgment” in a wheelbarrow. He is assisted by another devil named Deneadic.
Bottom panel: devils Cafu and Pufu pamper the “man who sleeps all Sunday morning”, rewarding him for skipping the Sunday service; next to them, to the right, we can see “the sluggish and slothful woman” spinning wool.
The murals from the Almaș-Săliște church were painted in 1819. Their creator remains unknown.
Church of the Holy Archangels Michael and Gabriel, Corund, Satu Mare County
Pronaos mural depicting Death (Moarte) and a personification of bubonic plague (Ciumă) riding a white horse; Ciumă most likely represents the first Horseman of the Apocalypse – Pestilence – the White Horse being sometimes interpreted as infectious disease, most commonly bubonic plague.
Another mural from the Corund wooden church shows Lucifer sitting at the Gates of Hell, “welcoming” the souls of the lost and the damned. One devil is seen on top of the gateway, holding a black flag – a symbol of death – and blowing a bugle to announce the arrival of the miserable sinners. Other devils are torturing these damned souls and driving them towards Lucifer and an eternity in Hell.
Church of the Holy Archangels Michael and Gabriel, Runc, Alba County
Saint Charalambos binding the Devil, depicted as a bearded man with horns, goat ears, a tail (not visible in the picture) and wielding a scythe. The image and role of the Devil was conflated with that of Death in the social imaginary of Transylvanian Romanians.
Consulted Works and Sources:
- Betea, Raluca. “Magical Beliefs for Stealing the Milk of Animals. A Case-study on the Romanian Villages in Transylvania (18th–19th Centuries).”
- Betea, R. The Death of Sinners is Evil.
- Himka, J. P. (2009). Last Judgment iconography in the Carpathians. University of Toronto Press.
- Pop-Curșeu, I. (2016). Magie și vrăjitorie în cultura română: Istorie, literatură, mentalități. Polirom.
- Drugă, L., & Morărașu, N. (2013). Reprezentanții răului în imaginarul religios și terminologia românească. Annals of the University Dunărea de Jos of Galați: Fascicle XXIV, Lexic Comun/Lexic Specializat, 9.
- Minois, G., & Cuniță, A. (1998). Istoria infernurilor. Humanitas.