Since antiquity, red has been associated with many sacred, righteous things: the god Mars, Roman centurions, and many priests and emperors were all dressed in red. However, red, especially fiery red, is also the color of death, hell, the flames of Satan that consume and annihilate, and the dragon of the Apocalypse, which has a body as red as burning embers: “Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads” (Revelation 12:3). How is it then, that a single color can be associated with contexts that are so disparate?
The Fathers of the Church dedicated many of their comments to the symbology of red, and theologians associated it with many vices. During the 13th century, when the system of the seven deadly sins and its correspondences was definitively introduced, red was overtly linked to four of the seven of them: pride, anger, lust, and gluttony.
The association of red with the Devil is also medieval. In fact, he assumed many of his present-day features and foibles during those times. The Christian Bible – the textual authority for the religion – only devotes a few passages to the Devil and does not describe his appearance at all. In Genesis the serpent who tempts Eve is strongly associated with Satan, but many theologians think the composition of Genesis predates the concept of the Devil. Passages alluding to Lucifer’s fall can be found in the books of Isaiah and Ezekiel. The Old Testament’s Satan is not the opponent of God, but rather an adversary, as exemplified by his role in the Book of Job.
The oldest representation of the Christian idea of the Devil may be a mosaic in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy. The sixth-century mosaic shows Jesus Christ, dressed in royal purple, seated at the Last Judgment. He is separating the souls of the saved (symbolized by sheep) from the souls of the damned (the goats). Behind the sheep stands a red angel, and behind the damned is a blue angel. Both angels wear halos, a device originally seen as a symbol of power, but not necessarily of sanctity. The blue figure is likely Lucifer, the fallen angel later known as Satan. Unlike preceding depictions, he is beautiful and radiant – not the horned, hoofed, red monster of later portrayals. The color of the holy kingdom in the sixth century, red became associated with hellfire and the Devil in centuries to follow.
In the New Testament, Satan has become a force of evil. He tempts Jesus to abandon his mission: “All this I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” (Matthew 4:9). He is described as a hunter of souls: The First Epistle of Peter warns:
“Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8). By the Book of Revelation, Satan has become an apocalyptic beast, determined to overthrow God and heaven.
The two Devils of the Old and New Testaments are first connected in the Vulgate, a fourth-century A.D. translation of the Hebrew Bible into Latin. Isaiah 14 refers to an earthly king as Lucifer, meaning “bearer of light,” who falls from heaven. Echoing Isaiah’s image, Jesus says in Luke 10:18: “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” At the dawn of the Middle Ages in the fifth century, authors began to apply the Vulgate term for Isaiah’s Lucifer to the rebellious angel leader in the Book of Revelation, cast into the pit along with his evil minions.
Hence, it is in medieval times that the Devil and his demons started to be represented in this color. Probably the red of the flames of hell is linked to this as well. They are flames that destroy and devastate, producing a more disturbing light than darkness, burning and consuming without lighting up. After death, sinners end up in hell, a frightening place situated in the center of the Earth, and entirely red and black, according to the ever-increasing number of images that represent it after the year 1000A.D., when the theme of the Last Judgment spread on a large scale. The black is that of the darkness that permanently reigns there; the red evokes a passage in the Book of Revelation: “And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Rev. 20, 10-15). For medieval culture, the combination of red and black is particularly negative. In fact, it is found on the body of Satan and in the kind of abyss that represents hell. Also in miniatures and Romanesque paintings, the Devil often has a red head. We find fiery red the bodies of the demons who torture the damned and plunge them into a boiling pot, and the body of Satan himself, who for his part is mostly black, or black with a red head. He has eyes as small and red as burning coals, and hair as bristling as the flames of the infernal furnace.
The royal purple of Jesus against the fiery red of the Devil: colors, like symbols, are polysemic. That is what makes them so fascinating, even in our times.
Marina Montesano is Professor of Medieval History at the University of Messina. Her book, “Classical Culture and Witchcraft in Medieval and Renaissance Italy” is published by Palgrave Macmillan and available online.
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