Why is the devil red?

Banner a ruddy hellscape

There are many depictions of what the devil looks like since the mere utterance of his name. The devil has taken up multiple names and multiple forms in various media. If someone was to ask you how do you draw the devil, some people might draw him has a tall, red beast with horns. But why red? Why not other colours? Truthfully, other colours were actually used to depict the devil in art but red is the most popular colour. Other colours like blue, green and black were used in very popular versions of paintings.

Most of the images we see and connect with to be the devil come from paintings, mosaics, stained glass works and other various mediums of art that came from artists on commission from the church. First of all the devil’s appearance is a combination of very old religions. There were many figures that influenced how we see the devil. Before the people painted the devil there were ghosts and goblin-like creatures that were a part of the underworld.

Zoroastrianism had a lot of influence of what the devil looks like by the characterizing the evil god, Angra Mainyu, the god chaos, mischief and evil. The ancient Hebrew but just as influential into the characteristics of the devil, Asmodeus, the three-headed king of demons that can be found in the Book of Tobit.

Seth was an Egyptian red-haired forked tongue god of chaos, storms and war. The Egyptian god Bes whose portrayed has a lewdly expressed god with a forked tail and serpents. He was described as a decent god to beerdrinkers to expecting mother warding off evil spirits.

Pan, the half-man and half-goat Greek god of music, shepherds and the wild with large horns on his head. And Hades with a two-pronged fork sitting on the thrown in front of the underworld; a ruler and judge for souls going to Tartarus (The Infernos) or Elysium (Paradise).

Dragons and serpents were also an influence on what the devil appeared to look like, for example, the lizard-like feet. In the new King James version bible, Revelations 12, there are passages that state that the beast was a red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads.

Byzantine Mosaic of The Judgment of the Nations, 6th century AD, Ravenna, Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Italy.
Byzantine Mosaic of The Judgment of the Nations, 6th century AD, Ravenna, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Italy.
A blue devil with horns, mid aged with snakes coming out of his head eating people whole.
Coppo di Marcovaldo, The Hell (1225-1274); The Florence Baptistery (Baptistery of Saint John) close-up octagonal of mosaic ceiling tile.

The first colours used to portray the beast in visuals were black but mostly in blue. The blue represented the darkness and unknown nature of the night. It made the devil look eerie and creepy. Most often in frescoes, mosaics and stained glass art, the devil was depicted in a dark blue which made him look like he was the furthest from God’s warm light being in eternal cold and darkness. This is possibility where the name Prince of Darkness comes from.

The colour was used throughout the centuries until the image of the devil changed in the public eye. The first major change was in Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. The Divine Comedy is about Dante going to all ends of Heaven, Purgatory and Hell to find his wife Beatrice. In the first canto called the Inferno, Dante Alighieri divided hell into nine circles of hell. With help from his guide Virgil, he ventures through the dark and very morbidly depressing circles of ironic punishment of the damned. The devil is in the last layer torturing the traitors fully covered by ice. The last circle was reserved for the great betrayers of history. The devil’s face was described to have three faces with one raised eyebrow. The front is blood red, his right is yellowish white and his left is“in its appearance was like those who come from where the Nile, descending, flows.”[pg. 210, line 44] His wings were like bat wings with no feathers, weaped blood and dark hairy mid chest above the ice. Lucifer would be eating, bashing and grinning the sinners in his mouth. He would be clawing at people like Judas Iscariot, Brutus and Cassius. In this last canto, Lucifer is the source of universal evil and suffering. Alighieri references historical events that happened to him and his current news cycle. Alighieri was exiled out of Italy for going against the church and was referenced in the book in hell. Moreover, the deaths of Pope Clement V and King Philip IV of France who were rivals, and elected Emperors in Germany, Lewis the Bavarian and Frederick of Habsburg were also referenced.

Illustrated image of Lucifer in Dante's Inferno. Illustrated by Sandro Botticelli
Illustrated image of Lucifer in Dante’s Inferno. Illustrated by Sandro Botticelli

The writing also reflects the satirical look of what the corruption was actually like. Most of the stories have some bases in what corruption was happening in the Catholic Churches in the 1300s, political rivalry, commerce and close family deaths. All of the punishments have some ironic twist to show the absurdity of what it is mocking. The ironies of all the cantos are the reasons why this book was so memorable. It managed to connect to people on a personal level even to this day.

Dante’s Inferno inspired many artists to see the devil in a different way for the first time since the introduction of the devil in art. Other books like Paradise Lost by John Milton portrays the devil more like an anti-hero of his own reckoning. Satan, formerly known as Lucifer, was a handsome fallen angel while Beelzebub shapeshifts into multiple forms. None of which are in red. His forms are a cow, a goat, a fly and a lion-tailed, duck-footed bat-winged beast.

The colour red stuck around over the years because red is was very bright and stood out. It’s the colour of blood, war, passion and power which was the reason why it was used at the time. The bright blood red colour just made the devil more unnatural sequentially evil looking as a result. The red was connected with hellfire. The popular type of red that they used for illustrated manuscripts back then was called Minium. It contributed to the overall orangey redness of the colour for centuries. The type of red found in paintings is a dark but bright red.

HEX Code #860111 - Devil Red
HEX Code #860111 – Devil Red

The devil was also portrayed in other colours beyond red, black and blue like in green in the Frier’s Tale by Geoffery Chaucer. It is one of the stories in the Canterbury Tales. It is about a corrupt summoner and his interactions with the devil. A summoner is clearing debts owed from various people. A woman, in particular, has some debts that he was processing to clear while conning some extra money out of her on made up charges. The summoner meets a person in green claiming to be the devil dressed in a long green cloak. The devil claimed that he could appear in different forms and was to test this deceitful person. They travel discussing the people they encounter and intent. The difference between someone cursing out of frustration than someone who really wants you to go to Hell, frying pan and all.

Painting of Saint Wolfgang and the Devil - Michael Pacher - 1471-75. Source: WIkipedia.
Painting of Saint Wolfgang and the Devil – Michael Pacher – 1471-75. Source: Wikipedia.

In the 15th century, green was a colour used to portray the devil. In paintings and books like the illuminated manuscript the Codex Gigas, also known as The Devil’s Bible because of many illustrations of the devils having a green face, claws and a blue body in portrait. The painting Saint Wolfgang and the Devil by Michael Pascher has a green devil talking to the Pope with secondary face from his ass looking outwards to the left of the painting. This green devil was named Black Leonard, used to discuss black mass rituals in the 16th century. In the Medieval times in the Anglo-Saxon region, the devil was illustrated in various ways in illuminated manuscripts has dragons, cockatrices and other types of horned goblin-like mystical beasts. Green for many centuries was associated with poison. It was used to paint dead bodies like in many images of the Great Plague. Even though around the same time green was also used to symbolize hope, it was also used in drapery, murals and church alters has a luxury item.

In Marlowe’s and Gothe’s Faust, a story about a man who sold his soul to a devilish creature for power. The devilish creature in service to the devil is called Mephistopheles. In the play, he is described to be a pale man with black hair with sharp features. But on market media, Mephistopheles was painted red in demon form on the first edition of books produced. Mephistopheles was a character that originated from German folklore but was noted to be in the play, Faust. Once was a grandeur fallen angel torn between pride and despair to a coldhearted, cynical and witty from one playwright Marlowe to the other playwright Goethe. Mephistopheles was the modern day devil that even Shakespeare used in his play Merry Wives of Windsor.

Black and white illustration of Mephistopheles Flying over the Cit
Eugene Delacroix, “Mephistopheles Flying over the City” (1828)

The red colour stuck in association with the devil. Over time we associated the devil even stronger with red in different types of various media, for example, comics book, movies and television. Within the 20th century, the devil turns into a fun guy in marketing alcohol and chocolates. For anything that is seen as naughty and indulgent the devil’s image was used for advertising sometimes in green but mostly in red. The green made the illustrations look more like a goblin and a servant. The devil red became more linked to hellfire than blood. The devil is still red. But the associations of the colour’s meaning changed over the years; more linked to a visualization of Hell than a battlefield.

Some images of the devil in popular culture:

Advertisement for Coal - Source: UK National Archives
Advertisement for Coal – Source: UK National Archives
Advertisement of Stepson's Ink with devil illustration
Advertisement of Stepson’s Ink with devil illustration
Comic book cover of Hot Stuff from Harvey's Comics
Comic book cover of Hot Stuff from Harvey’s Comics
Comic Book Cover of Weird Tales - July 1944 issue
Comic Book Cover of Weird Tales – July 1944 issue
Movie poster of Faust (1926)
Movie poster of Faust (1926)
Movie poster of Legend (1985)
Movie poster of Legend (1985)

Banner credit: Under the Moonlight

Books that were mentioned:

Alighieri, D. (1995). The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso (A. Mandelbaum, Trans.). New York: A.A. Knopf.

Milton, J. (2008). Paradise Lost (W. Kerrigan, J. P. Rumrich, & S. M. Fallon, Eds.). New York: Modern Library.

Chaucer, G. (1992). Canterbury Tales (A. C. Cawley, Trans.). New York: Knopf.

Goethe, J. W. (2008). Faust: Part One (D. Luke, Trans.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Codex Gigas (The Devil’s Bible), Herman the Recluse (Benedictine monk), 1229

The Tragic History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, William Marlowe, 1604

Merry Wives of Windsor, William Shakespeare, 1597

Other Resources:

Hell: The Devil’s Domain – History Channel (2006)

Bible Gateway: Relevations 12:8

BBC – How Egyptian god Bes gave the Christian Devil his looks

%d bloggers like this: