Among the devil’s most fascinating features are his bat-like wings.
The association between the bat and the devil comes from the symbolism attributed to this little animal. I have already discussed this in an earlier post on depictions of fantastical beasts in gargoyles, but for now, recall that Origen of Alexandria (2nd-3rd centuries) considered the bat a symbol of heretics. In Poitou, there is a legend that Satan descended in the form of a bat into the middle of an irreverent dance, and the dancers fell one after another, killed by the mere touch of his wings. Bats are depicted in manuscripts (The El Escorial Bestiary and The Oxford Bestiary) and on choir stalls (Yuste, Poitiers). In addition the bat became the symbol of the Jewish people who “hate the light of day and love darkness”.
Bat. León Cathedral (Spain).
Another of the creatures that has bat-like wings is the dragon. Baltrušaitis says that the Far East is clearly a land of dragons. A drawing by Wu Tao-Zu (8th century) and a reproduction by Li Long-mien (11th to 12th centuries) both show dragons with membranous wings. In the 13th century, dragons were often depicted with bat wings and jagged crests. Men with bat-like wings were also born in these lands, as can be seen in some bronzes from the Tcheou dynasty (11th-3rd centuries BC). Most authors today admit that these wings were taken by the West from Chinese depictions of evil devils, not dragons, since Asian dragons almost never have wings. Besides dragons, the bat’s membranous wings were also depicted on griffons, basilisks, hybrid beings and sea creatures, all sinister and demonic beasts.
Dragon. Salamanca Cathedral (Spain).
Dragon. Batalha Monastery (Portugal).
Hybrid with bat wings. Brussels Cathedral (Belgium).
In a previous post, we saw that wings are one of the features and characteristics associated with the devil, although sometimes he is depicted without them. Recall that from the 9th to the 13th centuries, the devil was also portrayed with feathered wings like those of the angels, albeit darker and shorter. Link has argued that the devil did not have bat-like wings until 1300.
Consequently, around the 14th century, the devil began to be depicted with membranous wings, like those Dante described in his Inferno. And it is precisely in Dante’s work where we find one of the most beautiful yet terrifying descriptions of the devil. The Inferno, part of his Divine Comedy, written between approximately 1304 and 1321, contains what is probably one of the first references to the devil with bat-like wings. Although Dante mentioned mythological beings, for example Cerberus (Canto VI, 21-24) and dragons (“There lay a dragon with outspreading wings, that with its breath set fire to all it met”; Canto XXV, 21-24), as well as snakes and other beings of an evil nature (“A snake with six feet leapt from the ground and flung itself over one of them”; Canto XXV, 48-51), his work is above all an essential source for demonic iconography.
His superb description of Lucifer is a literary wonder:
His mien was savage and menacing
And with his wings and nimble feet,
How horrible he suddenly seemed to me!
(Canto XXI, 31-33)
There my mind was perplexed,
To see three faces on his head.
One in front, and that was red;
The other two joined with this
Over one shoulder and another
And meeting at the crown.
The right-hand one was between white and yellow;
The left-hand one, a shade that declares
It was burnt beside the shores of the Nile.
Two large wings sprang beneath each face,
Of a size suitable for such a bird
—such sails never a boat hoisted.
Bat wings they were;
Featherless but flapping,
Causing three winds
That froze the water of the Cocytus.
Six eyes streamed with tears,
Mingled with bloody foam.
Each mouth was crushing
A sinner, as if he were flax,
Punishing the three equally.
(Canto XXXIV, 37-57).
Literature is a fundamental source for gargoyle iconography, as Dante is for images of the devil and his depiction in all the arts. The above image suggests the idea of a fallen angel, and massive bat-like wings form an essential part of the most beautiful and sublime depictions of evil. Of these, I would like to highlight the fresco in the church of St. Francis of Assisi, The Expulsion of the Devils from Arezzo (c. 1295-1300), by Giotto, which portrays devils with bat-like wings. This is a fundamental source to determine when this image of the devil emerged. Although Baltrušaitis argues that it was borrowed from Chinese winged devils, other scholars such as Ockham assert that these devils emerged from Giotto’s imagination. Perhaps this is one of Delacampagne’s coincidences of images, a product of immutable, logical or psychological laws that merge in the literature and art of all times.
Devils with membranous wings
Augustins Museum (Toulouse, France).
Batalha Monastery (Portugal).
Burghers’ Lodge in Bruges (Belgium).
Church of Santa María Magdalena in Olivenza (Badajoz, Spain).
Batalha Monastery (Portugal).
Collegiate Church of San Antolín in Medina del Campo (Valladolid, Spain).
Cathedral of St. Michel in Carcassonne (France).
Segovia Cathedral (Spain).
Salamanca Cathedral (Spain).
Burgos Cathedral (Spain).
Aachen Cathedral (Germany).
ALIGHIERI, D., Comedia. Infierno, traducción, prólogo y notas de A. Crespo, Barcelona, Editorial Seix Barral, S. A. Biblioteca Formentor, 2008.
BALTRUŠAITIS, J., La Edad Media fantástica. Antigüedades y exotismos en el arte gótico, Madrid, Ediciones Cátedra, S. A., 1987.
CHARBONNEAU-LASSAY, L., El bestiario de Cristo. El simbolismo animal en la Antigüedad y la Edad Media, Palma de Mallorca, José J. de Olañeta, Editor, 1997.
DELACAMPAGNE, A. y C., Animales extraños y fabulosos. Un bestiario fantástico en el arte, Madrid, Editorial Casariego, 2005.
LINK, L., El Diablo. Una máscara sin rostro, Madrid, Editorial Síntesis, S. A., 2002.
Doctora en Historia del Arte. Investigadora especializada en el estudio de las gárgolas.