The Symbolism of a Bat. Satan’s Brood

Dodano: 8 August 2014

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Naturae vespertilionis congruere naturam Diaboli [1]

Divus Basilius

The idea of a bat as a creature which has close connection with the devil strengthened in medieval Europe. The sources of such perception of flying mammals originate from i.a. Christianity, which included bats in unclean animals. In the Bible we can find, for example, records concerning the prohibition of eating bat meat – in the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament, we read: These are the birds you are to regard as unclean and not eat because they are unclean: the eagle, the black vulture, […] and the bat [2]. Information about the close relationship linking the bat and the devil is provided also by Morril Glover Allen in his book from 1940. He quotes words of an ancient writer Divus Basilius, who claimed that “the nature of the bats is akin to the nature of the Devil” [3]. This way of thinking about bats was maintained in different ways. It seems that to a large extent painters, illustrators and sculptors are to blame, since while interpreting various biblical scenes they were guided by these stereotypical notions about bats.

In short, the belief about connections of bats with the devil was embodied in the Middle Ages in the works of masters and in folk art; later on it has been creatively developed. In various biblical scenes, a bat was presented as a symbol of Satan. The dual and nocturnal nature of this animal based on the internal contradictions often symbolised evil lurking in every moment of saints’ lives. The Aix Annunciation altarpiece from the 15th century described by the already quoted Allen, can be used as an example. The authorship of the altar is still ambiguous, yet some researchers recognise the Dutch painter Barthélemy d’Eyck [4] as its author.


Barthélemy d’Eyck (1420-1470); Aix Annunciation (1443-1445)

The central panel depicts the scene of Annunciation to Mary by the Angel Gabriel described in the New Testament. The masterpiece is full of various symbols, but from our point of view, the most interesting are those related to the bat and …the owl. Allen points out that Gabriel was equipped by the artist in the owl wings (which wasn’t a typical way of portraying angels in that era), and above his head there is a bat placed in one of the architectural elements supporting the vault [5]. While the bat clearly symbolises the devil (the image of a bat reminds that evil is a constant threat and its necessary to be alert and God-fearing at any times), owl wings on the back of the archangel are more difficult to be unequivocally interpreted (development of associations connected with the Snyder’s Court of Owls must be left for another occasion).

Speaking of wings, it should be emphasised that in the pictures interpreting biblical scenes, angels were usually equipped with light, feathery wings and the devil wore webbed black wings, resembling those used  by bats for flying [6]. Satan in human form, depicted as a fallen angel with leather bat-like wings, appeared frequently in the Medieval paintings and also in the works from subsequent ages and perpetuated the belief about the correlation between the forces of evil and the bat. He generally played the role of the tempter who wanted to misguide various saints or people aspiring to that name. In accordance with the practice of the time, he was commonly portrayed at the moment of spectacular failure. Let’s look at a few images that illustrate this way of thinking about bat-like Satan (or satanic bat).

First, it’s worth taking a look at a fragment of the monumental work of a 14th century Italian artist Duccio di Buoninsegna. Namely, a reredos, double-sided altarpiece commissioned for the high altar of the Siena Cathedral [7]. Duccio created this extraordinary, complex representation of Bible scenes (with a truly comic narrative structure), between 1308 and 1311. The central figure shows the image of Mary with the Child in the company of angels and saints, which is why the piece is known as Maesta[8 ]. Around this central image, the painter presented sequences of panels involving several dozen small portrayals of Bible stories which can be read as a kind of medieval comic: In a series of small images (…) by nature of things, the most important is the narration, of which Maesta’s creator turned out to be the master [9]. If we assume that the narration is an essential feature of the comic book medium, then we have its masterly presentation.

The fragment which is of main interest to us shows the scene of the temptation of Christ by the Devil. This is one of the images (panels) located on the reverse of the work in a sequence of eight illustrations presenting events from the last period of Jesus’ public ministry that preceded the passion and crucifixion (the described image is placed between The Temptation of Christ in the Temple and The Calling of the Apostles Matthew and Andrew).


Duccio di Buoninsegna (1260-1318); The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain (1308-1311)

The painting above depicts one of the New Testament scenes in which the devil tempts Jesus, offering him a variety of wealth: Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him [10]. In the painting we can see the devil as a fallen angel. Webbed wings and a dark figure quite clearly evoke associations with the bat. The characteristic moment, which the artist decided to immortalise, is when Jesus triumphs over the devil preparing to flight and aware of his severe defeat. There’s one more interesting element Maria Skubiszewska points out, namely the fairy-tale-like character of the scene presented by the artist through a specific use of proportions and perspective. This character is reinforced by, one could say, quite comic book-like image of the devil.

Devils with bat wings not only tempted Jesus, but also bedevilled the saints. Let’s look at the painting from the 15th century by Michael Pacher which is a part of one of his two most famous works: The Altarpiece of the Church Fathers, which can now be seen in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich [12]. The image of St. Augustine (or Saint Wolfgang) [13] in the company of the devil is placed on the outside of the right altar door, and is therefore visible to the public only when the altar is closed.


Michael Pacher, (1435-1498); The Devil Presenting St. Augustine with the Book of Vices(1482-1483)

The Austrian painter and sculptor presented a scene in which the devil is standing in front of the saint and holding an open book. Two interpretations of this work are known. According to the first one, the painting portrays St. Augustine reading the book of vices shown to him by the devil. This interpretation is associated with the legend, according to which the saint had met the devil carrying the book and asked what was in it. He received a response that the book contained all people‘s sins .The saint wanted to see the piece of devil’s writings which concerned his sins. The devil opened the book on the appropriate page and found that there was only one sin: Augustine once forgot to take part in the compline. He quickly went to the church said the prayer. When he returned, the card of his sins in the book was clear, which really irritated the outwitted devil [14]. As for the second interpretation, the painting depicts St. Wolfgang of Regensburg who used deception to force the devil to hold for him the Holy Bible; and in this way the devil participated in the saint’s prayer[15]. Regardless of which interpretation is true (their common denominator is that both saints tricked the devil), the most interesting are devil’s webbed bat wings. The interpretation of other striking attributes should be left for another occasion.

Bat wings also belong to a devil that Saint Anthony struggled with. Below, there is one of many interpretations of the well-known story of the temptation of the saint — the drawing was made ​​in the 17th century by French artist Jacques Callot [16].


Jacques Callot (1592-1635); The Temptation of St. Anthony (1634: second version)

St. Anthony, who under the influence of words from the Gospel of St. Matthew gave all his money away and decided to live an anchoretic life, was cruelly tempted by Satan during his long stay in the desert. Disparate descriptions of these events present an exhausting struggle with the forces of darkness [17]. In the graphic above the devil with outstretched webbed wings is rising up in a sinister manner over the entire scene. Despite this dominant position, even in this fight he suffered a defeat in the challenge with the hermit, who — obviously — proved to be resistant to the temptations and attacks of unclean forces.

After all, the defeat seems to be permanently incsribed in the devil’s life – let’s look at the 19th century interpretation of the scene of Satan’s banishment from heaven, by Gustave Doré, who often represented the fallen angel equipped with bat wings.


Gustave Doré (1832-1883) Satan is Cast of out the Hill of Heaven and Cast in Hell’s Canyons (1866)

This is one of Doré’s fifty illustrations for Paradise Lost by John Milton [18]. By the way, it is worth noting that the French dillustrator is particularly important for comic books fans. He is frequently mentioned as one of the forerunners of this medium and his History of Holy Russia, published also in Poland, is considered to be one of the first comic-strips [19]. The illustration above presents the scene where Satan is banished from paradise by the angel Gabriel.This is the 19th engraving from the cycle, which illustrates the ending of the fourth book of Paradise Lost. We read there:

The Fiend looked up, and knew
His mounted scale aloft: Nor more; but fled
Murmuring, and with him fled the shades of night.

Discouraged and defeated Satan walks away “cursing”, which is quite a typical situation in such confrontations. Also the folk art often portrayed the devil as a whipping boy. He was, as a rule, an anthropoid figure with bat wings, fighting unsuccessfully with representatives of the forces of good. The relationship between folk art and biblical inspiration is obvious. “In the folk beliefs it [the bat] was regarded as the incarnation of evil powers. It was also believed that the devil can be summoned by means of a bat. These, as previously thought, close ties of bats with Satan aroused anxiety “[21]. So let’s look at the representation of the devil characteristic of folk art.


Jędrzej Wowro (1864 – 1937); Casting out to Hell (1920-1928)

The wood engraving above was made ​​in the 20th century by a folk sculptor and woodcutter Jędrzej Wowro. It presents a scene of the archangel Michael fighting Lucifer equipped with bat wings. When Lucifer refused to obey Christ, God had to order Michael to banish him out of Heaven. Michael drew the sword and pursued his brother for forty days and forty nights until they both fell to the earth. And, immediately, the earth split in half and Michael’s brother fell into the chasm and he is pinned with huge chains to the gate that leads to hell. [22].

To sum up, it should be emphasised that the way of portraying Satan, which suggested obvious associations with the bat, was very common. As we can guess, the consequence of this way of thinking about the flying mammal and presentation of its attributes in biblical scenes, was almost automatically recognised as a kind of symptom of Satan’s presence on the earth. If the natural habitat of the bats were the depths of hell, then when the colonies of these animals appeared near homes and gardens, it was getting dangerous (of course, for the inhabitants of these houses). In places where colonies of bats could be found, the devil inevitably had his dwelling. Adam Krzanowski indicates a medieval commentary concerning the process of Mrs Jacaume, who was burned at the stake in 1332 in Bayonne in France. The reason for accusations of witchcraft was neighbours’ account, according to which there were colonies of bats around the woman’s house [23].

Witchcraft and bats are closely linked through, among other things, such historical accounts. In the literature there are descriptions of magic practices requiring the use of certain bat’s parts. Actually, there isn’t any satisfying brew that doesn’t contain any element of these poor creatures.

As an example, the extract from Macbeth by William Shakespeare is often brought up in this context. In the first scene of the fourth act we can see the events happening in a dark cave accompanied by thunder and lightning.


John Gilbert (1817-1897); Macbeth visits the Three Witches (1858-1860)

Macbeth, after the murder of King Duncan and getting rid of his friend Banquo, comes to witches for the prophecy. Perpetrated deeds are more and more difficult to cope with for Macbeth, se he wants to know his future. Three witches standing at the cauldron prepare a mixture thanks to which they can, indeed in quite an ambiguous way, foretell the future of the main character. An essential component of this brew are parts of the bat:

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

In this way, a bat (dead or alive) has become one of the inherent attributes of a witch. Today’s image of witches, which has largely been converted and modified by popular culture that presents it mainly in the Halloween version, contains lots of different elements. However, the most distinctive companion of a witch is still a bat.

Here, however, a new story begins: about a bat and a variety of modern superstitions in which it is involved. Most of them have their source in the more or less distant past and are associated with features of a bat, which have been attributed to the images of Satan for ages. Perhaps today, the bat is no longer considered an emissary from hell, but the concerns related with this animal are still common. Life in the darkness and the combination of conflicting properties must inevitably stimulate human curiosity and cause some anxieties. The appearance of various superstitions pertaining to bats was only a matter of time …

In the next episode: Bat in the abyss of superstition

The author of the article is PhD Paweł Ciołkiewicz – a sociologist involved in the analysis of discourse and media sociology. He is currently conducting research on popular culture.

Proofreader: Klementyna Dec

Translated by Monika Cach

[1] The motto was taken from: G.M. Allena, Bats. Biology, Behavior and Foklore, Dover Publication Inc. New York, 1967 [1939], p. 14.

[2] Leviticus: The Laws of Purity. [w:] Pismo Święte Starego i Nowego Testamentu, Wydawnictwo Pallottinum, Poznań-Warszawa, 1980, p. 116. It’s worth mentioning that this extract was frequently used by the critics as an example of mistake of classifying bats as birds instead of mammals.

[3] G.M., Allen, Bats. Biology, Behavior and Foklore, Dover Publication Inc. New York, 1967 [1939], p. 16.

[4] [access: 21.07.2014].

[5] G.M., Allen, dz. cyt., p. 16.

[6] A. Krzanowski, Nietoperze, Wiedza Powszechna, Warszawa, 1980, p. 204.

[7] M. Skubiszewska, Malarstwo europejskie w średniowieczu. Malarstwo Italii w latach 1250-1400, Wydawnictwa Artystyczne i Filmowe w Warszawie, 1980, pp. 80-90.

[8] The whole work can be seen here: [access: 31.07.2014].

[9] M. Skubiszewska, dz. cyt., p. 86.

[10] Ewangelia według Świętego Mateusza: Kuszenie Jezusa, [w:] Pismo Święte Starego i Nowego Testamentu, Wydawnictwo Pallottinum, Poznań-Warszawa, 1980, p.1127.

[11] M. Skubiszewska, dz.cyt. p. 87.

[12] [access: 02.08.2014].

[13] It can be found in some sources that the painting doesn’t portray St. Augustine but St. Wolfgang of Regensburg: [access: 22.07.2014].

[14] J. de Voragine, Złota legenda. Wybór, Wydawnictwo Prószyński i S-ka, Warszawa, 2000, pp. 402-403.

[15] [access: 1.08.2014].

[16] The most famous painting concerning the subject of the temptation of St. Anthony is triptych by Hieronim Bosch. There are also Salvador Dali and Witkacy’s own interpretations.

[17] The description of the struggle with the devil can be found here: [access: 01.08.2014].

[18 The devil with bat wings is presented on the illustrations a few times. All of them are available here: [access: 02.08.2014].

[19] G. Dore, Dzieje Świętej Rusi, Wydawnictwo Słowo / obraz terytoria, Gdańsk, 2003.

[20] J, Milton, Raj utracony, Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków, 1986, p. 113.

[21] [access: 21.07.2014].

[22] B. Skoczeń-Marchewka, Diabły o skrzydłach nietoperza, Wirtualne Muzeum Drzeworytów Ludowych, [access: 21.07.2014].

[23] A. Krzanowski, Nietoperze, Wiedza Powszechna, Warszawa, 1980, p. 204.

[24] W. Szekspir, Makbet, Wydawnictwo Siedmioróg, Wrocław 1997, pp. 72-73.

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