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The Devil and the Painter Monk

Hugh O’Reilly
In the city of Auxerre, France, there was a great and splendid Abbey with many monks who served God and His glorious Mother well, since they kept their cloister and their Rule, and were of an honest and holy life.

Now this Abbey church had on its west side a great portal that opened onto the city street so that the townsfolk might enter the nave to hear the Mass. This door was richly arched and canopied nobly with stone, but its niches were empty because none of the monks were fit artists to undertake the great work of adorning it.

And while it stood thus, there came into the Order a man who had been an artist in the world and was excellent in the craft of stonework and painting. So he was given charge of filling the niches in the door that invited all in the city to the mysteries of the Holy Church.

Ladders were made and beams laid on them that he might work without hindrance, and he entered upon the work with joy. And so he bestowed on this portal his best effort, which was the first fruit of his religious life. And so he filled it with elaborate stone figures of the Blessed Saints who guide us to the gate of Heaven.

Painter monk of Auxerre

The monk sculpts Our Lady above the portal

But above the portal remained a large empty space. Here then were his ladders set up so he might make an image of Our Lady Queen of Heaven reigning gloriously and holding her Child Jesus in her arms. And this he did to show she is truly Porta Coeli, the Gate of Heaven by which our salvation comes.

The monk took great pleasure in making the image of Our Lady, for he had her always in his heart. He made her as fair as he could and enthroned her in the center of the portal where all must see her as they passed. Never had more lovely a Lady held her court in that town.

Then, when he was done, the artist mounted higher, even to the gable of the roof. There he painted Our Savior Jesus Christ as He sits for the judgment of all men. He made Him stern of aspect, as at the Dies Irae He shall be, and he placed at His right hand a Paradise exceedingly fair, filled with Angels.

After this, the monk made a Hell on the other side of Christ the Judge, and he began to paint on it a figure of the Devil with his horns and cloven feet, so hideous and so terrible to see that I think no fiend was ever fashioned in such great hideousness, either in painting or in stone, and none could look at it without fear.

The Devil threatens the monk

So ugly was this figure that Satan himself, who is proud of heart and does not like to be brought into derision, became angry. Therefore, he hid himself in the likeness of a man and came from Hell and appeared before this monk.

Devil and Painter Monk

Then, he paints Our Lord and starts to make a hideous Devil

Then the Devil said to him, as a gossiper who loved to watch others at their work, “Hahay, brother, what are you doing here, so horribly disfiguring this wall. I fear your Abbot will be angry when he sees this handiwork of yours on his beautiful edifice.”

Then, the monk laughed joyfully, for he knew his work was well done, and he answered, “Brother, it is plain that you are not accustomed to look upon the Devil. For had you ever seen him, so ugly is he that you would take little account of this picture. For he is indeed more monstrous than anything we can fashion of our utmost wit.”

When Satan heard this, he could not contain his wrath, and he replied, “Have a care, for I am he whom you defame, and I will not suffer your villainy. If thus you malign the Prince of Hell, you will make me lose all the servants I have in this city who have served me truly all their lives. For when they see so hideous an image of their sovereign, they will cease to love me, and instead love that Woman whom I see you have made.

“A sorry matter, that a wretch like you should take from Lucifer his due! Amend this work of yours while you may and make me in the likeness of a young knight who is valiant and fair, or I will do you some great evil. I warn you straightaway that if you do not, you will repent it, for I am powerful and those who cross me, do so foolishly.”

Then, Satan vanished and went back to Hell. And the monk found himself alone and very afraid for he realized he had spoken with the Prince of Darkness. Yet it seemed to him that some help he might have, if he but asked Our Lady for it.

The monk seeks Our Lady’s protection

Therefore, the next day when the Mass of the Blessed Virgin had been sung, he knelt down before her altar in the church and begged her help. And it seemed to him that she gave him strength and courage to serve God with good will, for none can serve two masters, for if he pleases one he displeases the other. So, he determined to make the image of the Enemy in Hell even more hideous to make him shamed and despised by the people.

And so the monk mounted the ladders again and set himself to his labors, to paint the ugliest and most terrible Devil ever devised.

The Devil returns in fury

When Satan, who was once a fair angel, saw himself painted more hideous than before and a master of mockery to all that passed, he was filled with rage and appeared to that painter in his proper shape, more evil and monstrous than our wit can fashion it, for it is the very shape of sin. And the monk, seeing him thus, was filled with terror.

The painter and the devil

The Devil appears to the monk in his real hideousness...

“Monk,” said the Enemy, “I see that you keep not the rule of obedience as a religious should. Did I not charge you yesterday to cease this dishonoring of my person and make me beautiful and gracious even as I am in the eyes of my servants, and as that Woman whom you have painted there?”

Then, Our Lady put courage into the heart of this artist of hers that he might stand firm in her defense. So, he replied to the Devil boldly, saying, “How can I do this? Know that she whom you see there is the Queen of Heaven, and you are but the Devil, and it is not fitting that any offer you the honor that is her due. Had I fine gold here upon my palette, I would surround her with an aureole for she is holy. But your image I would encompass with every foulness.”

Then, the Devil became exceedingly wrathful that any man should dare wage war with him such. He said, “Wretched man, know then that you stand within my power and kingdom, for I am the Prince of the Air, and here I have dominion to raise up and cast down as I will. Know then that you shall stay here no longer to defame me.”

The devil and the painter

...  and destroys the scaffold, but Our Lady saves the monk in his fall

Then, Satan hurled himself against the high ladders and beams upon which the painter stood, which were so far above the earth and close beneath the gable of the church. Doing this, he broke the ladders into many pieces, so that they fell down, and with them the painter.

The townsfolk below who were watching the painting progress saw this and waited in great fear lest the painter fall with the scaffold to his death.

And indeed he fell also, but as he fell, he cried with a loud voice, saying, “Help me, Holy Mary! Help me or I die.” And after this he could speak no more because of the quickness of his flight downward.

Our Lady comes to his aid

painter and the devil

The people see the miracle and go with the monk to the church to thank the Virgin

painter and the devil
As the painter monk fell past that place where he had made Our Lady’s image, which was above the lintel of the door, indeed she came to his aid. For she stretched out her right arm and took him, and drew him to herself and held him fast. And so well and safely did she hold him that he received no hurt, but rather a great bliss. And her Child held him upon the other side. So, he lay secure between God’s Mother and her Son, as those that call on them in peril yet may do.

When this miracle was seen by those who stood below, they cried out in amazement, and all the townsfolk came to see the marvel of the image that held the painter in safety so that he was neither afraid nor suffered any hurt.

And all the monks of the Abbey came, and the Lord Abbot with them. And when they had saluted full courteously that Queen of Mercy who had helped her artisan in his distress, they raised a ladder to bring down the monk from where he lay.

But he was in little haste to descend because, he said, “Never have I known so great comfort as this, held closely in Our Lady’s arms. Nor would I leave it, but that I may henceforth serve her the better.”

Reaching the ground, he entered into the Abbey and went straightway to kneel before the altar of the Blessed Virgin, who had saved her servant when Satan had so nearly destroyed him. And he gave thanks to that Lady, and he served her with his art all the days of his life, making many images in her honor. And in all things he worked right diligently for the glory of God and his Mother, and for the putting of their enemies to scorn and mockery.

Thus will all prudent artists ever do. For good it is to serve such a Lord and such a Lady, who keep the body from pain and torment, and bring the soul to a perdurable joy.

Adapted from Evelyn Underhill, The Miracles of Our Lady Saint Mary,
NY: EP Dutton & Co, 1906, pp. 219-230.
Posted January 26, 2013

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