Apotropaic devil figure
10th Tiberius Auction
Apotropaic devil figure
Tyrol or Grisons
Carved pine wood
Height 151 cm
This singular figure is a demonic, devil-like figure carved from part of a long tram made of pine wood (length 151 cm). Presumably this architectural sculpture represents an architectural element of a wooden ceiling, either in a castle or a town hall, can be stylistically assigned to the region of Graubünden to South Tyrol, and dates from the 12th/13th century. Particularly noteworthy are the old frame remains of the beam.
As the epitome of evil, the devil is shown either as a single figure or within a group of demonic figures. There is no description of the devil in the Bible itself; it was therefore up to the carvers to invent suitable physiognomic features. Typical is the blending with characteristics of pagan, Greco-Roman gods, such as goat’s feet or paws and ram’s horns of the god Pan. Peculiarities of the Romanesque period are the drastically widened eyes as well as the deep-set eyebrows or the thick head of hair that curls up into a horn in an abstracted manner. Other physiognomic, almost animalistic details are the thick bulbous nose and the oversized mouth with pointed teeth and a long, outstretched tongue touching the crest-shaped shield the demon holds in his hands. The crouching devil figure, shown in strong frontality, presents the shield in front of the body, suggesting the representative function of heraldry. This is a unique representation of the synthesis of a heraldic and an apotropaic function.
Such fearsome figures have an apotropaic, i.e. ominous, effect and therefore serve to protect the building. This explains why houses were decorated with such motifs, for example in the form of gargoyles in cathedrals. This sculpture has a double function of protection as well as bearing a family coat of arms, presumably of the family that donated the building for which this devilish figure was originally intended. The figure’s facial expressions are particularly prominent, as is the protruding tongue. The Bible attaches great importance to the tongue as a symbol of speech, as it manifests a powerful voice or a deity. In connection with Medusa, another apotropaic figure, it is used to indicate an all-devouring hunger. In the case of the devil, the outstretched tongue can also be interpreted as a sexual innuendo. This motif has been known as an attribute of the devil since the 11th century, in connection with fear, blasphemy and sin, whereby this in turn is associated with the demonic sphere. It probably also has a warning effect on the viewer, as it can be seen as a visual sign of speaking. Here, however, this motif is used playfully to draw the focus to the escutcheon, which was almost certainly originally painted with heraldic signs of the founder.
Comparable depictions of sinners being devoured by the devil can be found, for example, as an architectural sculpture in St. Peter’s Church in Chauvigny from the 11th/12th century. Here the naked sinner sticks out his tongue and is devoured by a lion-like creature that holds the mortal pressed against him with two of its paws. This is comparable to the following Bible quotation: “Be sober and watchful! Your adversary the devil goes about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” (1 Pet 5:8). A figure of the devil with similar physiognomic features and a protruding tongue is found on the prince’s portal in Bamberg (around 1230). Other demon figures are found on the tympanum of the west façade of the 12th century monastery church of Sainte-Foy in Conques. An example of a squatting figure is the pair of figures on the sides of the rose window of the Romanesque portal of the Chiesa dei Santi Giovanni e Reparata in Lucca, also from the 12th century. Another singular example of a devil with a supporting function is the demon Asmodeus, who carries a holy water font, in the church of Sainte Marie-Madeleine in Rennes-le-Château, which was consecrated in 1059.
This very early, museam-quality object of the Middle Ages is an extremely rare architectural element in a magnificent state of preservation, which can be assigned to the so-called “Alpine Romanesque Road”, which consists of almost three dozen Romanesque cultural sites between today’s South Tyrol and Grisons. Among others, similar representations of mythical animals or monsters can be found at the entrance to the castle chapel in Castle Tyrol (1125-40). This fortified castle, built around 1100, was the seat of the Counts of Tyrol. In the Knights’ Hall of the castle, which was extended by Count Meinhard II in the 13th century, there are ceiling beams with a similar design.
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