The iconography of the devil: St Vigean’s, Eassie and the Book of Kells

The iconography of the devil: St Vigean’s, Eassie and the Book of Kells

By Cormac Bourke

The Innes Review, Vol. 58:1 (2007)

Devil Book of Kells

Introduction: The slab numbered 7 at St Vigean’s, Angus, preserves one decorated face; the other has been largely obliterated and the monument as a whole has been partially cut away. A cross on the intact face has a rectangular base and is flanked on the left by four standing figures in two registers, between whom is a fifth, inverted, figure. Two figures to the right of the cross, identifiable as SS Paul and Anthony, sit facing each other in the act of sharing bread. Below them a crouching figure wields a knife as though to stab the breast of a horned ox or bull and his tongue is extended as though to lap the animal’s blood. In the Hendersons’ view, the juxtaposition of this scene with that of Paul and Anthony

explores ideas set out in St Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews, 10, where he contrasts the New Covenant of the Christians with the Old Covenant of the Jews: ‘For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins … (whereas) … we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all’. The gruesome appearance and actions of the St Vigean’s crouching man suggest that the sculptor intended to repudiate not only the faith of the Jews but pagan sacrifices in general.

The Hendersons’ interpretation of this scene of blood sacrifice can be enlarged upon, for the shape of the man’s tongue has a demonic connotation. Its counterpart is the tongue of the devil in the Temptation miniature (fo.202v) in the Book of Kells. In both cases the tongue is unnaturally, if not grotesquely, extended and has an emphatic upward turn. In Kells, by implication, the devil addresses Christ and his extended tongue may be significant of speech. But whether lapping the blood of sacrifice or tempting Christ, both sculptor and painter have characterised the diabolical in common terms. Moreover, that the cross-shaft on the St Vigean’s slab bears spirals ending in the heads of animals, birds and men has caused Isabel Henderson to observe that ‘The use of human heads as spiral terminals is precisely what one would expect to find in the Book of Kells’. Unable to find an example, she concludes that St Vigean’s no. 7 discloses a Pictish sculptor behaving like a Book of Kells artist although not executing a design used in that manuscript.

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