Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Temptations of Christ

First Temptation of Christ
From Livre d'images de Madame Marie
Flemish (Hainaut), 1285-1290
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition francaise 16251, fol. 28v

"Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan
and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days,
to be tempted by the devil.
He ate nothing during those days,
and when they were over he was hungry.
The devil said to him,
"If you are the Son of God,
command this stone to become bread."
Jesus answered him,
"It is written, One does not live on bread alone."
Then he took him up and showed him
all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant.
The devil said to him,
"I shall give to you all this power and glory;
for it has been handed over to me,
and I may give it to whomever I wish.
All this will be yours, if you worship me."
Jesus said to him in reply,
"It is written:
You shall worship the Lord, your God,
and him alone shall you serve."
Then he led him to Jerusalem,
made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him,
"If you are the Son of God,
throw yourself down from here, for it is written:
He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,
With their hands they will support you,
lest you dash your foot against a stone."
Jesus said to him in reply,
"It also says,
You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test."
When the devil had finished every temptation,
he departed from him for a time.”
Luke 4:1-13, Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent, Year C
March 10, 2019

Each year the Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent presents us with a reading about the temptation of Jesus by the devil, immediately following his Baptist in the Jordan by Saint John the Baptist.  The Devil noticed the events surrounding the Baptism, the intervention of the Holy Spirit and the voice from Heaven and his attention became focused on this previously unknown young man from what had seemed an ordinary background.  Seizing the moment, he set to work with some serious temptations. 

The earliest of the three Synoptic Gospels, that of Mark, gives us only a bare mention of the temptation event.  The other two are more detailed, although they reverse the order of the second and third temptations, but are united in the nature of the first one.  The first temptation is that of changing stones to bread. This would demonstrate power over the natural world, but is something that a mere magician might be able to do.    The second (following Saint Luke) is to assume worldly political power, a fairly ordinary temptation, but well within the reach of Satan to gift to the tempted one.  The third is much more subtle, it is a temptation to demonstrate power over spiritual things, for angels are pure spirit and not of this world.  If someone were to succumb to this temptation that person would have to be a very strong commander of spiritual things, in fact, they would have to be the Son of God.  

Wisely Jesus refuses to accept any of the challenges, but instead rebukes the Devil for asking them, reminding him of some major truths, such as only God is worthy of service and only the Word of God can satisfy the soul. 

The Temptations of Christ
From the Drogo Sacramentary
French (Metz), Middle of the 9th Century
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9428, fol. 41r

The episode has been a popular one for illustrators of the Bible ever since the middle ages; and the changing ways in which the Devil has been portrayed can tell us something about the anxiety level of those who painted and viewed them regarding their expectations of what they were faced with in their own times of temptation.1

Initially, the earliest illustrations I could find present the tempter as a human being or a fallen angel, following the still surviving ideas of classical antiquity which dominated the first 1,000 of Christian art. 2
The Baptism and Temptations of Christ
From the Gospel Book of Otto III
German (Reichenau), c. 1000
Munich, Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 4453, fol. 31v

This remained true for Byzantine art as well and for what we now call Romanesque art. 

The Temptations of Christ
Byzantine, 1100-1150
Venice, Basilica of San Marco
Basilius, The Temptations of Christ
From the Melisande Psalter
Latin Kingdom (Jerusalem), c. 1131-1143
London, British Library
 MS Egerton 1139, fol. 4

However, around the year 1100, at the beginning of the second Christian millennium, an element of fantasy entered into people’s ideas about how this tempter should look.  He began to morph into the demon we all know from the traditional culture’s idea of the devil.  He developed claw-like feet, sometimes a grotesque face, modeled on some ferocious animal, he grew horns and sprouted a tail.  By the year 1200 he had become a creature of our nightmares.
Capital with the First Temptation of Christ
French, 12th Century
Chauvigny, Church of Saint Pierre

First Temptation of Christ
From the Psalter of Christina of Markyate (The Saint Albans' Psalter)
English (St. Alban's),  c. 1124-1145
Hildesheim, Dombibliothek, p. 33

Temptations of Christ
Spanish (Castille-Leon), 1st Half of the 12th Century, possibly 1129-1134
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cloisters Collection

Capital with the First Temptation of Christ
French, c.1150
Saulieu, Church of Saint Androche

First Temptation of Christ
From Miniatures of the Life of Christ
French (Corbie), c. 1170-1180
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 44, fol. 5v

The Temptations of Christ and Christ Ministered to by Angela
From a Picture Bible
French (St. Omer, Abby of St. Bertin), c. 1190-1200
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 F 5, fol. 12v

And then things changed again.  While still retaining his new characteristics he began to be domesticated.  No one can convince me that the benignly cartoonish "pet" devils found in manuscripts dating from the first half of the thirteenth century were about to frighten anyone.  More likely they were a cause for amusement to the users of the books that featured them. 

First and Second Temptations of Christ
From a Psalter-Hours
French (Paris). c. 1228-1234
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 153, fol. 18v

Third Temptation of Christ
From a Psalter-Hours
French (Paris). c. 1228-1234
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 153, fol. 19r

Baptism of Christ and First Temptation
From a Psalter
English (Oxford), c. 1240
London, British Library
MS Arundel 157, fol. 5
Second and Third Temptations of Christ
From a Psalter
English (Oxford), c. 1240
London, British Library
Arundel 157, fol. 6

Third Temptation of Christ
From the Psalter-Hours of Yolande of Soissons
French, c. 1280-1299
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 729, fol. 39v

While this type of relatively harmless devil existed into the fourteenth century, another image began to appear.  This devil was still grotesque, but considerably more threatening.  He was most often portrayed as a dark, sometimes even black figure with wings.  Perhaps the terrible experience of the Black Death, which led to the death of some many people in the middle of the century, contributed to the darkened mood and tone.  This may not be the entire explanation, however, as the trend had begun in the early years of the century, well before the arrival of the plague. 

Duccio, Third Temptation of Christ
Italian, c. 1308-1311
New York, Frick Collection

Queen Mary Master, The Temptations of Christ
From the Queen Mary Psalter
English, c. 1310-1320
London, British Library
MS Royal 2 B VII, fol. 191

Giovanni di Benedetto and Workshop, First Temptation of Christ
From a MissalItalian (Milan), c. 1385-1390
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 747, fol. 305v

By the beginning of the fifteenth century some artists were beginning to depict him as a human being again, although he might be trying to disguise ugly birdlike (sometimes webbed) feet under his robes and may sport the occasional pair of horns.  Sometimes this is only true for the first temptation and the other two continue to show him as a demon.

Lorenzo Ghiberti, Temptation of Christ
Italian, c. 1401-1424
Florence, Baptistry, North Doors

Temptations of Christ
From the Ottheinrich-Bibel
German (Regensburg), 15th-16th Century
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
MS Hss Cgm 8010(1), fol. 29
In this interesting illustration the devil appears first in the guise of an old man.  For the second and third temptations he has shed his disguise.

Bedford Master and his Workshop, First Temptation of Christ
From a Book of Hours
French (Paris), c. 1430-1435
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 359, fol. 50v
In this series of three separate scenes, the devil appears as a human figure only in the first.
Bedford Master and his Workshop, First
Temptation of Christ
From a Book of Hours
French (Paris), c. 1430-1435
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 359, fol. 51r
Bedford Master and his Workshop, First
Temptation of Christ
From a Book of Hours
French (Paris), c. 1430-1435
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 359, fol. 52r

Master of Schloss Lichtenstein, First Temptation of Christ
Austrian, c. 1445-1450
Vienna, Belvedere Museum

Other artists continued to present the by now traditional grotesque figure.

The First Temptation
From the Lisle Hours
English, c. 1316-1331
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS G 50, fol. 18v

Limbourg Brothers, Second Temptation
From the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
Flemish, c. 1416
Chantilly, Musée Condé _
MS 65, fol. 161v

Claes Brouwer, The Temptations of Christ
From a History Bible
Dutch (Utrecht), c.1430
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 78 D 38II, fol. 150r

Hans Strigel the Elder, First Temptation of Christ
German, c. 1443
Gestratz (DEU), Catholic Parish Church of Saint Gallus

As artists began to develop more naturalistic styles of painting, they began to depict the natural world as well.  Some of what they painted may seem to our eyes to be very little like a desert, but one should remember that the word which our modern translations present as “desert” has also often been translated as “wilderness”.  Since most Europeans had never seen a true desert, or even much in the way of arid lands, they interpreted the wilderness as they experienced it.    

Master of the Passion Sequences, The Temptations of Christ
German, c. 1430-1435
Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum

Israhel van Mechenem the Younger, First and Second Temptations of Christ
German, c. 1450-1500
Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Kupferstich-Kabinett

Rambures Master, The First Temptation of Christ, with the Temptation of Esau and the Temptation of Adam and Eve
From a Biblia pauperum
French (Hesdin or Amiens), c. 1470
The Hague, Meermano Museum
MS MMW 10 A 15, fol. 25v

This triple image combines the Temptation of Christ (Under Grace) with temptations from the Old Testament.  On the left, Jacob tempts Esau with a bowl of porridge, which the hungry Esau exchanges for his birthright as first born son (Under the Law).  On the right Adam and Eve are tempted to commit the original sin (Before the Law).  The three fold division of time into periods Before the Law, Under the Law and Under Grace was a way of understanding salvation history which was typical of the middle ages, but which was running out of steam by this late date.

Master Francois, First and Third Temptations
From the City of God by St. Augustine of Hippo
French (Paris), c. 1475
The Hague, Meermano Museum
MS MMW 10 A 11, fol. 423r

Master of Philippe of Guelders, First Temptation
From a Psalter
French (Paris), c. 1490-1503
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 934, fol. 223r

The dichotomy between the grotesque devil figure and the more sinister, apparently human, figure persisted throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. 
Juan de Flandres, First Temptation
Hispano-Flemish, c.1500-1504
Washington, National Gallery of Art

Wood Panel with the First Temptation
French, Early 16th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cloisters Collection

Style of Patinir, First and Second Temptations
Flemish, c. 1500
Upton House, near Banbury (UK), National Trust

Although the focus is on the first confrontation of Jesus and the devil, the second temptation is included.  There are two tiny figures visible at the top of the very steep precipice in the left middle ground.

First Temptation
From a Breviary
French (Southern), c. 1506-1516
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 8, fol. 69v

Master of St. Severin, The Temptations of Christ
German (Lower Rhine), c.1520-1521
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Dirk Jakobszoon Vellert, The First Temptation
Dutch, 1525
Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Kupferstich-Kabinett

Simon Bening, The Temptations of Christ
From the Prayer Book of Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg
Flemish (Bruges), c.1525-1530
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
MS Ludwig IX 19, fol. 62v

Anonymous Flemish Painter, The First Temptation
Flemish, c. 1570
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Pieter Stevens, The First and Second Temptations of Christ
Flemish, c. 1594
Budapest, Szépmûvészeti Múzeum
The second temptation is seen at the very top of the image.

However, by the dawn of the seventeenth century the presentation of the devil as a man, sometimes even as a religious personage, such as a hermit, or as a fallen angel became the primary image. 

Tintoretto, The First Temptation
Italian, 1579-1581
Venice, Scuola Grande di San Rocco

Paolo Veronese, The Baptism of Jesus and the First Temptation
Italian, 1582
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera

Raffaello Pagni, Christ Vanquishing the Devil After the Last Temptation
Italian, 1595
Pisa, Church of Santa Maria Assunta

Denis van Alsloot and Hendrick de Clerck, The Baptism of Christ and the First Temptation
Dutch, 1600-1630
Vienna, Liechentenstein Museum

Jan Brueghel the Elder, The First  Temptation
Flemish, c. 1600
Private Collection

Johann Koenig, The First Temptation
German, c. 1600
Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum

Peter Paul Rubens, The First Temptation
Flemish, c. 1620
London, Courtauld Gallery

Paul Bril, The First Temptation
Flemish, 1626
Birmingham (UK), Birmingham Museums Trust

David Teniers the Elder, The First Temptation
Dutch, c. 1630
Private Collection

Philips Augustijn Immenraet, The First Temptation
Flemish, 1663
Warsaw, Museum of the John Paul II Collection

Eglon van der Neer, Landscape with the First Temptation
Dutch, c. 1698-1703
Munich, Alte Pinakothek

This has remained the case since that time, although the setting for the narrative is often more realistic (or more abstract) than in earlier images. 

Willilam Blake, The Final Temptation-of-Christ
English, c. 1805
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Wiles Maddox, The First Temptaion
English, 1844
Bath (UK), Beckford's Tower Museum

Ludwig Ferdinand Schnorr von Carolsfeld, The Second Temptation
German, 1847
Vienna, Belvedere Museum

Ary Scheffer, The Third Temptation
French, 1849-1854
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Carl Heinrich Bloch, The Final Temptation
Danish, 1850
Copenhagen, Frederiksborg Palace, Chapel

Giulio Masnaga, The Second Temptation
Wood Intarsia
Italian, 1877-1880
Alzano Lombardo, Church of San Martino

James Tissot, The First Temptation
French, 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum

James Tissot, The Third Temptation
French, 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum

It is easy to be amused by the somewhat ridiculous devils of the middle ages.  One can’t help feeling that the people of that time were perhaps less frightened of him than they were of the many natural and man-made calamities that befell them throughout their daily lives.  The temptations of Christ may have seemed to them as belonging to another reality.  Or, one might say that their just and reasonable fears coalesced into a fear so great that they chose to mock it, rather than to acknowledge it. 

Otto Dix, The Second Temptation
German, 1948
Vaduz (LIE), Otto Dix Stiftung

For those who have come after them, it is probably correct to say that they feel a reasonable fear of the devil, of evil itself, not as a grotesque figure, but as something far more serious, a proximate threat to virtue.  Something so close to daily life that it is hardly noticeable as a threat.  And, surely, that is how the devil is presented in the reading for this Sunday.  He is able to speak with Christ, in terms that tempt with attractive propositions “Show me who you are.  Make these stones turn into bread, seize political power, demonstrate your power over the angels.”  But, ultimately the power of the devil is an illusion, for what reward can he actually give to Christ, or to anyone who accedes to the whispered allurements and promptings.  After the temporary satisfaction, there is only emptiness and darkness.

© M. Duffy, 2019
  1. I will not be dealing, in this article, with one of the most famous images of the Temptations of Christ.  This most famous painting, by Sandro Botticelli, is one of the series of scenes from the lives of Christ and of Moses which decorate the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel.  They were commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV, the builder of the chapel and the person for whom it is named.  They were painted in the 1480s by several artists, who were working at the same time so as to speed the work.  However, in spite of the variety of artists, there was a definite program in place that dictated the subjects to be presented and may, to some extent, have also dictated the way in which the pictures were composed.  The program is presumed to be the work of Pope Sixtus himself and that is about where the agreement among scholars ends.  In recent decades several different interpretations for the decoration as a whole has been proposed.  In addition, the Temptations of Christ is particularly enigmatic and several different interpretations for what it actually depicts have been proposed.  I am not terribly convinced by any of them.  So, I have decided not to include this painting at this time. 
  2. There may be others that are earlier, although the two earliest manuscript New Testaments that I know of do not illustrate this subject. 

Excerpts from the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America, second typical edition © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

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