The hellish history of the devil: Satan in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages European artists and theologians shaped a new terrifying vision of Satan and the punishments awaiting sinners in his realm.

Seated on a fiery throne, Satan devours a damned soul in this detail from 13th-century mosaics adorning the Baptistry of Florence, Italy.
PAUL WILLIAMS/GETTY IMAGES

Perhaps the devil’s most famous depiction was crafted by English poet John Milton in his 1667 masterpiece, Paradise Lost. The epic poem tells two stories: one of the fall of man and the other the fall of an angel. Once the most beautiful of all angels, Lucifer rebels against God and becomes Satan, the adversary, who is:

Hurld headlong flaming from th’ Ethereal Skie
With hideous ruine and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire . . .

To develop his character, Milton relied on an idea of the devil that had been evolving throughout the Middle Ages and early Renaissance: the foe of God and man, the master of witches, and the tempter of sinners. This personage was largely fixed in the collective consciousness of Christendom, but the devil’s origins are complex, coming from many places, not just the Bible.

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