The Devil Still Has the Best Tune

Article excerpt

It is a curious fact that when God had a stronger hold on public consciousness than He does today, people were less inclined to be so worried about the Devil. The Bishop of Oxford says that the Conservative Party's poster campaign showing Tony Blair with devilishly slit red eyes is dangerous. The bishop may only have meant to say that it was dangerous to democracy for the body politic to demonise the legitimate opposition; or to introduce that level of personal abuse into electioneering; but he went further: it was dangerous because it "draws on satanic imagery".

Satanic imagery is a bit more complicated, actually, than a pair of red eyes behind a mask that might be the Lone Ranger's, and which are drawn more from B-grade horror movies than any European Christian tradition. But if the Conservative publicity machine is really trying to draw parallels between Blair and the original Devil, it should be careful.

By the end of the Middle Ages, there were three things that everyone knew about the Devil (apart from the fact that he was Bad). The first, which is obviously implied in the advert, is that he was the consummate liar and deceiver. But the others were that the Devil was enormously powerful and enormously sexy. Blair certainly wants to be the former, and probably wants to be thought the latter: it is surprising that the Tory party should so readily hand him such an accolade.

If the image is going to demonise Mr Blair, it will work as much around our subliminal expectations of Satan as around anything specific about the Labour Party, old or new. We can learn about what these might be by looking at the history of Christian iconography.

Demonising the opposition has long been a part of the political job. During the Reformation, pro-Catholic propaganda pictures of Luther frequently showed him either as the Devil or with the Devil sitting affectionately on his shoulder and whispering inspiration into his ear. The reformers responded with vicious caricatures of the personified Papal Bull, who is shown in 16th-century prints sitting at a table with a revoltingly obese Pope; the Bull's horns and tail were far more explicitly demonic than the red eyes and sinister mask that the Tories have pained on Mr Blair.

The Devil was strong and subtle. He started out as a mere snake but quickly took on all the powers of the dragon, breathing fire and wreaking havoc. As well as having immense physical strength, he also apparently had great mental powers as well. He could dispute with the greatest theologian. He was the master of disguise - dressing up as someone else being the very core of "lying", and one of the reasons why cross-dressing was more or less proof of heresy, as Joan of Arc discovered.

The Devil was sexy: he established his bond with witches by seducing them. The very word "glamour" derives from the spell that, under his auspices, witches performed: to "cast a glamour" was their crime. The word eventually extended to the alluring but delusive beauty that the witches gained from their association with the Devil.

Because people knew all this about him, they were far less worried by evil than we seem to be. …