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How did the devil go from the ugly and terrifying Enemy of Man and God in the Renaissance to a Renaissance tights-wearing chopped ham spokesperson in the 20th century? It all comes down to the telling and retelling of a fable about a real German scholar accused of trying to snatch knowledge that wasn’t his to take.
The medieval and Renaissance devil has some of the gnarliest toes in Western art. In an engraving from the 15th century, Lucifer sits in the middle of hell devouring sinners with three mouths on his face and one on his stomach, his toes taking the form of talons. The image was inspired by Dante’s Inferno, which depicts Lucifer frozen at the center of a lake in the middle of hell. His head with three faces is covered with tears from his six eyes as he chews on three of the worst sinners ever, blood mixing with saliva and running down his faces. While crunching on the bodies, he flaps his giant bat-like wings to keep this part of hell frozen. Dante himself was baptized under Florentine mosaics depicting a three-headed Lucifer that seems to be using the bodies of sinners as footstools. Medieval devils sported horns and talons, while later examples sprouted webbed feet and hands, features of multiple animals at once, and even elongated breasts. In short, the premodern devil was a monster.
The key to the transformation is the Renaissance story of Faust. Scholars now think that there was a real German man (or two similar men later conflated into one) named Johann Georg Faust, active in the early 16th century, who practiced astrology and alchemy. In the Renaissance, alchemy was the forerunner to modern chemistry, and a lot of alchemy was aimed at changing base metals into precious ones like gold. Faust acquired a popular reputation as a magician. To his contemporaries, he could have only acquired this knowledge — stolen from God — with the help of the devil.
From the late 16th century on, the story of Faust first became a literary bestseller, boosted by Goethe’s romantic play Faust in the 19th century. It then dominated pop culture through Charles Gounod’s 1859 opera Faust. Exposure to opera at the time was not reserved for the upper classes: Opera was broadly accessible through shorter performances of the highlights sung in the native language of the audience. With colorful and memorable sets and costumes, the form had reach beyond the stage.
The star of Gounod’s Faust is not the titular character, but Mephistopheles, the personification of the devil. Faust sells his soul to Mephistopheles, and in exchange, the charming devil becomes his servant. Thanks to Mephistopheles, Faust becomes young again and seems to win the love of beautiful and modest Marguerite.
As the story of Faust morphed from a Renaissance fable to a 19th-century romantic opera, the appearance of Mephistopheles transformed, but the costume remained true to the Renaissance setting of the story. In the Renaissance literary versions of the story, written by Protestants during the European Wars of Religion, Mephistopheles is a representative of the devil on earth — he’s described as taking the form of a Catholic monk.
In the Goethe play, Mephistopheles accompanies Faust in the Romantic guise of a traveling scholar, equally ready for a philosophical debate or drunken debauchery. Once brought to the stage, the charming yet infernal nature of Mephistopheles could not be left to the imagination of the audience, and so the signature look of the 19th-century devil was born.
Whether in publicity photos of opera singers or in the advertisements for deviled ham, coffee, and Tabasco sauce, the devil was a goateed and mustachioed man dressed in an all-red Renaissance costume, complete with red tights, a cape, and a red cap decorated with two horn-like red feathers. The connection between the operatic Mephistopheles and the Victorian image of the devil was so clear that the likeness of Faust opera star Édouard de Reszke was used to advertise the devilishly spicy Tabasco sauce. Underwood’s deviled (chopped and spiced) canned ham also used the operatic Prince of Darkness as their spokesperson in the early 1900s. The ads show a grinning man dressed in tights, cap, and cape, brandishing a can or a deviled ham sandwich as well a mini pitchfork.
Like the 1930s monster movie that collapsed Dr. Frankenstein and his monster into one bolt-necked creature, Gounod’s opera made Mephistopheles the face of Faust. W.E. Blanke’s Faust-brand pepper and coffee depicted not the Renaissance scholar, but rather his red-tighted frenemy.
In the wake of the Renaissance, scientific revolution, and enlightenment, people started to think that the idea of the devil was at best superstitious and at worst ridiculous. To modern people, the idea of a man that personified evil roaming around the earth in Renaissance tights was increasingly out of step with how they understood evil. By the 1950s, Mephistopheles, still wearing his tights and horn-like Renaissance hat, morphed into the campy Mr. Coffee Nerves, destroying the sleep of those who didn’t drink caffeine-free Postum. Early on, the devil fell sway to the sexy costume trend, resulting in sexy devil costumes on the covers of racy midcentury magazines and on actresses such as Anita Ekberg. Reduced to humor on one side and titillation on the other, old Mephistopheles became ridiculous and deeply unscary.
What the people of the postwar world feared was not a personified demon, but the fiery hell of modern war characterized by genocide and the alchemy that split atoms in increasingly powerful new bombs. The perceived source of evil moved from an outside force like Mephistopheles, which actively tempted people, to a force that was potentially present within every human. The devil no longer needs a monstrous appearance, an all-red costume, or even a bodily form. Like the killer in a horror flick, it’s coming from inside.
When modern American composer John Adams was commissioned to write a new Faust-themed opera, he turned to the creation of the atomic bomb by J. Robert Oppenheimer. In the key scene of the opera, Oppenheimer sings about his sadness over the loss of his soul despite his longing for God. He is wearing a 1940s-style American suit and hat. There is no Mephistopheles anywhere on stage with him. His only companion is his creation: the bomb. Modern evil no longer needs either a separate person or a special costume; instead, it’s found within an otherwise absolutely normal human being reaching for what he shouldn’t have.
In the 1995 film The Usual Suspects, starring Kevin Spacey and directed by Bryan Singer, the character Roger "Verbal" Kint memorably tells investigators, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist.” While Elizabeth Hurley in Bedazzled and Al Pacino in The Devil's Advocate played sleekly attired Mephistophelian tempters around the same time, it was Keyser Söze — hidden within, right in plain sight, and wearing utterly forgettable clothes — that captured pop culture’s imagination and embodied the new face of evil.