Saint Augustine and the Devil,
Painted by Michael Packer (1435-1498),
Painted between 1471 and 1475,
Oil on panel
© Alte Pinakothek, Munich
How can Satan cast out Satan?
The scribes who had come down from Jerusalem were saying, ‘Beelzebul is in him’ and, ‘It is through the prince of devils that he casts devils out.’ So he called them to him and spoke to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot last. And if a household is divided against itself, that household can never stand. Now if Satan has rebelled against himself and is divided, he cannot stand either – it is the end of him. But no one can make his way into a strong man’s house and burgle his property unless he has tied up the strong man first. Only then can he burgle his house.
‘I tell you solemnly, all men’s sins will be forgiven, and all their blasphemies; but let anyone blaspheme against the Holy Spirit and he will never have forgiveness: he is guilty of an eternal sin.’ This was because they were saying, ‘An unclean spirit is in him.’
Reflection on the Painting
The Gospel reading of today talks about Satan, Beelzebul, evil and unclean spirits. Yes, Jesus takes on the forces of evil during His ministry and the powers of darkness cannot master Him. At the same time, we hear about the scribes already plotting against Jesus and spreading malicious stories. Depictions of hell, Satan and evil were not really very prominent in Art History until the 14th century, when the plaque, famine, wars, black death etc swept throughout Europe and some explanation for ‘evil’ rampaging needed depicting. Satan started being portrayed in beastly form but with human qualities, as a cautionary tale for illiterate church goers. Paintings, such as the one showing today, made around 1471, must have scared the viewers and therefore scared people away from sin. Showing Saint Augustine literally in the face of evil, would further have made the point, that anyone can get tempted by the devil. Even the saints. So we have to be aware of the devil and make sure we don’t engage with him.
Throughout the Middle Ages, when this painting was produced, the depictions of Satan portrayed him as an aggressive, malignant, evil force set on tormenting as many human souls as possible… even Saint Augustine. It is this what Jesus is warning us about today, that Satan is not just a passive onlooker, but he has an active role, trying to steal souls. Jesus is also saying that evil is not necessarily something overly monstrous, but can be very subtle. As subtle as not recognising goodness or seeing the badness in people or situations… as subtle as even not believing the devil exists…
This recognising of subtle evil and being aware of it, led Saint Augustine to say: The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works…
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